Online technology, in one way or another, has been a part of my life ever since I was a chubby kid logging onto local BBSes with my Commodore 64 and a 300 baud modem. I can say that it is an integral part of my life and worldview. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. So much of the online world has become a part of our lives by its nearly seamless ubiquity. We surf the web. We microblog on Twitter. We share selfies on Instagram. We use Twitter and grit our teeth over those who still don’t understand it.
So it was that I woke up today and immediately picked up my phone to catch up on what happened during my comatose moments. One of the first things that caught my eye was this tweet from Neil Gaiman,
‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens http://t.co/h3EqBNgSsT. (Why yes, I am indeed posting this again.)
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) August 26, 2015
The link is a retweet of an article from the Onion that seems to get trotted out quite a lot. So I did a search for “shootings US” and discovered that this time, a reporter, a photog operator, and an interviewee were shot during a live features segment on WDBJ-TV’s morning news (note: this is not a link to video of the shooting but to the station’s coverage). The reporter and the photog died at the scene. The shooter was a disgruntled former employee. To add to the already horribleness of this news, the photog’s fiancee was the morning show producer and was celebrating her last day before moving on to another station.
There’s no point in discussing gun violence anymore. It’s a cancer that this country seems unwilling to do anything about, just like the Onion article suggests. It doesn’t matter anymore because we’re told it’s always too early to talk about gun violence and our country’s glorification of gun ownership. It’s now as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. If we as a country tolerate the murder of movie patrons, elementary school children, church goers, prayer circles, and now TV reporters, then no amount of handwringing, candlelight vigils, or protests are ever going to work. Our elected leaders all but admit that ambivalence to mass shootings is so metastasized to the point of being ingrained in the USA’s culture. ’nuff said.
What makes this incident different was the shooter’s use of social media. The killer recorded the incident with his cellphone and later uploaded that video to Facebook and Twitter, quite possibly the two most popular social media sites. Certainly, there have been recorded incidents of death and violence: the Abraham Zapruder film of the JFK assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting on live TV. Some have even used the medium of television to commit suicide, such a Christine Chubbuck and R. Budd Dwyer. But here we have an instance of someone recording a murder from his own perspective and then using social media to air his grievances as well as publicize his involvement in the incident.
In short, the shooter knew that, by uploading the video to social media sites, he and his actions would be disseminated by the larger populace. He would, earn notoriety and his place in the news cycle in which he participated. His media savvy, if we are to call it anything, included updating his online profiles to promote his own narrative: hard working journalist done wrong. Or possibly, as a black man living in America, he was aware of how he could’ve been portrayed in the media. If you think I’m making light, consider how black males are often portrayed in the media. Whatever the reason, this was a man who was smart enough to understand social media and its viral nature.
Honestly, this seems like a first. And maybe not the last, if we are to believe people like Farhad Manjoo from The New York Times.
The videos got out widely, forging a new path for nihilists to gain a moment in the media spotlight: an example that, given its success at garnering wide publicity, will most like be followed by others.
And that’s the key to social media: it’s a decentralized entity that gives people a feeling of control over (for lack of a better term) old media. Are you angry about something Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow said? You can certainly tweet at them or write a response on their Facebook page. You can go over to YouTube and give your own video rebuttal to their segment. Social media allows us the chance to get ourselves out there. And it doesn’t just stop there. You can create a podcast dedicated to your favorite things, be they puppies, Firefly, or alcoholic beverages. Heck, you can even write a 1,000-word blog on whatever issue of the day has been eating at you. Certainly, you may not get the response you want (if you get a response at all), but your work goes out to people who might agree with you. Better yet, they become your audience. And given the nature of social media, that attention is often reciprocal.
But with every benefit, there are darker elements at work. With decentralization comes those who choose to use this power irresponsibly. There is a nihilistic bent to social media, especially among those who use it for bullying, aggressive behavior, and (as we learned today) promoting the sicker elements of society. And much like guns, social media can irrevocably change people’s lives. Sometimes they protect us, such as documenting abuse or neglect. Other times, it can be used to harm us, to inure us to violence, to mock the powerless. More often, though, we use social media to present what we consider to be our Best Self.
Even when our Best Self belies the actions we perpetrate in real life.