Tragedies are Memes

As tragedy does, the news of the attacks in Paris spread like California wildfire.  It is nearly impossible to hide from any news of this magnitude, particularly in our information economy.  In my own office, the progression went from “terrorist attack in Paris” to the television being turned on with body count totals in marquee across the screen.  And although it is “cynical” but true, as my colleague pointed out, it was the duty of the 24 hour news networks to spew forth non-information and fear mongering in order to keep eyes glued to their screens.  The typical procession of initial information, local correspondents, and then theexpert commentary and questions (flashback to Die Hard).  I was half paying attention when I heard the anchor ask “what is the risk of this happening in the US?”  Thank you, CNN.

Of course one of the largest changes over the past decade has been the introduction and increased use of social media.    Facebook was introduced in 2004 and Twitter came two years afterwards.  These and similar services have only grown as a method of information dissemination.  When I did get a chance to log onto my Facebook and Twitter feeds, it came as no surprise when I the first snippets that started showing up all had something akin to ‘my thoughts and prayer for Paris.’  This reminded me of something the comedian Anthony Jeselnik said:

The people who see something horrible happen in the world and they run to the internet. They run to their social media, their Facebook, their Twitter, and they all write down the same thing: “my thoughts and prayers”. Do you know what that’s worth? Fucking nothing. You’re not giving time, money, or even your compassion. All you’re doing is saying “don’t forget about me today. Lot’s of crazy distractions in the news right now, but don’t forget how sad I am.”[1]

There is a lot to agree with here, however it is an over-simplification.  It cannot be argued that there is a lot of “me” in social media.  These online services are basically a platform for self expression.  It is used frequently used to inform followers of news, events, feelings, photos, etc.  As such, Jeselnik isn’t entirely wrong in his thesis.  The only portion I have significant misgivings about is his point about compassion.

As I pointed out, social media is a self expression platform.  People have been prone to pour their hearts out Facebook and Twitter.  While this is often a conscious or subconscious grab for attention, these people are still putting their feelings out there.  While Jeselnik is correct when he remarks that posts about tragedies are a nudge for others to not “forget how sad” the authors are, to say that these posts are compassionless could easily be a complete falsehood.  There is a caveat here.  While I’m sure there is compassion in these statements, Social Media has also been a factor in limiting our attention spans.  So called prayers will likely last a brief moment as a feed scrolls to the next funny cat .gif.  The offered compassion is short lived and impermanent in our minds, though quasi-permanent in the ethereal of the internet.

Social media is a tool for the ego.  I am in no position to tell people what they should or should not do with it.  However, I do think it is important to actually think about what they are doing and to understand their motives behind it.  This is a brief essay about my thoughts on the subject matter and I want you to read it.

[1] Anthony Jeselnik: Thoughts and Prayers. Directed by Adam Dubin. Performed by Anthony Jeselnik. United States: Netflix, 2015. Film.

 

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