How Should We Handle Tragedy In The Digital Age?

Tragedy is everywhere. The first notable one for me was 9/11. I was living in Hawaii and had just woken up to find my mom freaked out because of some attack in New York.  I was 9, and so it just didn’t matter to me at the time. All I knew was that I got the day off from school because of it. When I was younger, I was oblivious to the conflicts and events of human history. My parents rarely talked about the news; our life revolved around us flying to this thing or that church event. I learned the news when I overheard others chatting. But when I got onto the Internet, and Facebook and Twitter, in 2009 — I was a late bloomer — the presence of certain events spread in my life. (Even though it was still technically overhearing other people’s conversations about the events.) I saw people respond to the shootings, to the earthquakes, and even the elections. Life became more present.

These painful events became more prevalent because of this new habit of posting responses to them. When I logged onto the computer on Monday, I was flooded with every business page and social media maven posting their response to the Boston marathon bombing. Many of them were heart-filled, stating that they were shocked by the horror of the events.  The first tweet was helpful; it was an article by the New York Times covering the tragedy as it developed. The next post was less helpful, with the author making claims that a certain religion or secret group was to blame. And then I just saw every person posting their condolences about the event, showing how they felt in light of this tragedy.

But this is an expected pattern: the universality of every man/woman/website posting a response to the evil event has made the posts lose some of their emotional value. It seems to me that this idea of sharing one’s condolences for a tragedy has evolved into more of a common courtesy performed by all Internet denizens. I know that many posters actually feel for the victims and I understand that I can’t judge every person and their reasons for posting a Facebook status. But still, do these posts actually provide any legitimate value for the victims, or for those working to fix the situation?

Some see see the human response to this event as unhelpful. Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis noted that this bombing wasn’t picked for high casualty rates, or for a particular ideological agenda; it was designed to maximize mass media coverage:

The attack on the Boston Marathon was designed to maximize media coverage: a popular event with cameras everywhere and a narrative that will be sure to follow about innocent enjoyment henceforth ruined by danger.

For years, we’ve been told to fear this: an attack on a football game or at Disneyland or in a mall, someplace without fear before. Instead, it happened at the marathon. No matter who committed this crime, a precedent is now set for those that unfortunately will follow. Now every time there is a popular event with many cameras that is open — not easily contained like a stadium — we will be taught to worry…..

…But the new factor this time — versus 9/11 or London’s bombings or Mumbai’s attacks or even the Atlanta Olympics’ — is the assured presence of media cameras at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This was the media-centered attack.

Jarvis has a point: this bombing was designed to attract maximum media coverage in the shortest period of time. The bomber wants us to act in this way, to respond both as a society and as individuals.

Is there any value in the immense social media reaction to this tragedy? After all, the response reveals our common humanity, that necessary emotional aspect of each person who posts their condolences that is willing to help the victims. But how true is that?  Would each and every person posting their response to the tragedy actually go out of their way to help the victims? I’m not sure. What worries me is that responses like these turn out to be what is often categorized as a form of “slacktivism,” where the posting of condolences is all that is done.

As for myself, I can’t answer this question. I hope that I would move beyond just posting, and towards financial and other support.  I hope that in situations like this, that I would go beyond posting a quick “OMG” and would go out of my way to run straight into the disaster zone to help. I want to say I’d do that. But it is not until I arrive in those situations that I would  know this.

It is for that reason that I appreciate the responses of men like Jeffrey Overstreet, who chose to recognize those who wouldn’t immediately post things, but choose to do something more helpful:

Thanks to those who turn off the bombardment of other people’s panic, rage, and confusion on Twitter and Facebook and TV and elsewhere… and who instead contribute to prayer and good work and grace, and to loving their friends and families and neighbors in a day that needs as much of that as we can give. Thank you to those who are, right now, using the remaining hours of this day to contribute in meaningful ways to the needs in front of us.

Thank you to those people.

I hope that I and my fellow Christians can choose to move beyond posting things and promoting things, and into the realm of action, of prayer and of doing our best to physically support our fellow man.

About Christopher Hutton

Chris Hutton is a college student and Freelance Writer from Bloomington Minnesota. Since he was young, he loved books and ideas. Science was one of his favorite topics, as well as technology. It's one of the issues that has mattered to him consistently. Hence, Chris tries to bring a critical/helpful take to the modern understanding of technology. You can find Chris' home online at liter8.net, or you can tweet him via @liter8media.

  • http://www.rockerlifecoach.com Tim

    I loved reading your post. Yes the world of social media has become just like the gossip prayer lists of the many churches. Where to many are just speaking up to get attention, and less about the real prayer and action it takes to solve the problem.
    Its time to take action and that action starts with the man in the mirror

    Rock On
    Tim


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