The Repetitive Cycle of Tragedy and Social Media

On Monday afternoon, after clearing my DVR of 4 days-on-the-road recordings, I returned to the regularly scheduled television programming to see that it was not the regularly scheduled programming.  The news was reporting a bomb or bombs had gone off at the Boston Marathon. The tragedy would end up killing three, maiming dozens and injuring over one-hundred.  It was a terrible day for Boston, running enthusiasts and anyone who wants to feel safe and secure in their every day life.  But almost as instantly as the tragedy occurred, a now familiar threesome of of sympathetic messages, patriotic outrage and unformed, unfunny jokes flooded social media.  Because of the conditioning many of us have undergone with social media (my unproven theory is that due to the decline of  faith and religion, but not in humanity’s overriding need to feel connected, we have developed a culture where food eaten, thoughts thought and feelings felt must all be shared to give us some sense of meaning and of being part of something bigger) I considered sharing my thoughts on the incident, as well as some unfortunate jokes that popped into my head (“Even our 9/11 was better. #GoYankees” was a particularly heinous fleeting funny thought), but chose not to.  I preferred a time when I did not have to consciously stop myself from doing these things, but it is a start in retreating from the mentality I have adopted within social media.  The fact is I believe a lot of the outpouring of sympathy is self-serving, not necessarily selfish, but definitely self-serving.  And I think the comedians that jump at a chance to make these jokes are seeking only exposure and notoriety  – why else would you post half-baked jokes that are likely to offend people? No one really wins with that – comedy fans get a weak product and people’s feelings get hurt.  And then these lead to conflict and stupidity on social media.

The basic timeline for these tragic events now go like this:

  1. Tragic Event occurs
  2. Everyone sends out thoughts and prayers via social media
  3. More facts emerge
  4. More thoughts and prayers are sent out via tweets, status updates and possibly through actual thought and prayer
  5. First few comedians begin to post jokes that are generally not clever or funny, but are definitely the first on the topic.
  6. Patriotic anger from people
  7. More thoughts and prayer messages
  8. Outrage at jokes made as well as “how could you do (fill in the blank) at a time like this, which then extends to anything that is not outrage and sympathy on your Twitter feed or Facebook Timeline
  9. Defense of jokes made by comedians claiming to be the guardians of the 1st Amendment and “everyone grieves in their own way” even though they are not really grieving at all.
  10. More thoughts and prayers, but with inspiring messages and memes of how we cannot be defeated by ugliness.
  11. Political anger – why isn’t Obama calling it a terror attack (even though common sense tells you that while clearly a terror attack, the term “terrorism” evokes a more specific connotation that may be wise to avoid before more facts are revealed)?
  12. Messages that we all stand with Boston
  13. Messages from people reminding us that all over the world there are bigger and worse tragedies every day and that we should once in a while throw thoughts and prayers in their direction as well.
  14. Gruesome images of the Boston attack for no apparent reason, but that we should all be angered and hurt by the incident, so why not post bloody limbs on the Facebook timeline.
  15. We all stand with Boston messages have officially replaced thoughts and prayers
  16. More people joking.
  17. Share pictures of different children holding signs teaching us how we really should be.

And this was basically a recap of 24 hours.  One day!  I do not mean to sound callous or rude, but the Boston incident did not really affect me in a significant way.  I think it is a sad event and I think it is terrible for the people who witnessed it, experienced and have suffered loss.  But this is someone writing who has not felt fully safe in a movie theater (my favorite sanctuary from a lot of things) since the Aurora shooting.  What are the chances something happens to me in a movie theater?  Almost zero.  But that incident felt like my sanctuary was shattered because it was so violent and so unexpected.  Similarly, I am sure runners everywhere feel that way and I appreciate and understand it.  That is why I chose not to joke about the incident. Out of respect.  The need to joke about it did not trump common decency, something that our sex-tape, shock-value, nothing-is-sacred culture seems to have misplaced. But I won’t pretend like the incident has touched me in a deep way just to appear like everyone else.  Every day I read something in the New York Times that makes me cringe or feel terrible, but it is also not my place to blast that the day of an incident that has hurt many people deeply.

I really think we just live in a fraudulent society now.    Even if thoughts and prayers do something, I am sure that tweeting thoughts and prayers does nothing except allow everyone to see that you are doing proper things.  I spoke to my Mom about how sad the incident was and watched some of the news.  Had the incident been bigger in scale, perhaps I would have donated blood.  When did we become a society where the outward appearance and expression of emotion became the norm for everything?  I actually had the thought when social media exploded during and after the Boston tragedy, “Thank God we did not have this crap during 9/11.  At least we were forced to process that tragedy in a deeply personal and meaningful way instead of becoming a series of token statements and weak humor.”  Appearing to feel something now seems as important as actually feeling something.  And competing with that emotional fraudulence is a comedic fraudulence.  Comedy used to be about being funny and/or having a message.  But thanks to Twitter followers, Google Analytics and dumb friend willing to like and indulge mediocre comedic sensibilities and worse taste, every death, ranging from celebrity to human tragedy, begins a stop watch for comedians acting like heroes and writing like amateurs to pump out something offensive or mediocre in an effort to satiate the gods of web traffic and timeliness.

The funny thing is I agree with most of the things on the list above and also hate most of the things on the list above (especially the jokes part – I am never for censoring comedians’ right to say something, but hate when most of it is unfunny, simple and sensational).  But our response to tragedy, due perhaps to a combination of numbness and needing to feel included and special, appears to be about us and not about the tragedy or the victims.  “Look how sympathetic I am” (to me it is no different than wishing RIPs or Happy Birthdays to people on social media who are not actually on social media – who is this for?  Us to recognize what a warm and caring person you are, or to honor the person you speak of?), “Look how edgy I am,” “But look how outraged I am!”  This was a tragedy, but sadly I think it is the new normal.  We live in a world with increasingly deadly technology, easier access to that technology and a populace always looking to send messages from hashtags to terrorism.  I just hope as our society changes we still remember how to actually feel sympathy and experience joy and pain and not just express it on websites.  And one thing I left of the list…

18. Blog about your thoughts on the whole incident.

For more contentious, but also more funny, stuff from J-L check out this week’s episode of his podcast here.

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