May 3, 2011

Media terrorism

Social media distracts from reality of War on Terror.

The world is on fire with the news of Osama bin Laden’s death.

And by world, I mean social media: YouTube, the Twitter-verse, and of course, Facebook. Having no Twitter, no Facebook, and no YouTube account, I don’t really feel the heat of this fire. I haven’t been bombarded by tweets, haven’t seen pictures of “patriotic” riots from other college campuses on my newsfeed, and haven’t seen a video of a random guy melodically intoning, “Osama bin Laden is dead, let’s have a moment…of happiness!” before giving two thumbs up to the world.

Except, for some reason, I have. I am writing this, mind you, on the same night of the president’s announcement. Within moments of the news’ first break, and despite my detachment from the social networking sphere, I am already suffering from media overload. In this day and age, we’re all so deeply entrenched in the instant-media driven culture that it doesn’t really matter whether or not you “actively” participate in social media. You’ll feel the pulse of the social body as long as you still interact with other human beings, the majority of whom have tried to Facebook you.

As cheers erupt around the nation celebrating bin Laden’s death—cheers seen and heard largely through social media (though it’s surprisingly quiet here on the UChicago campus)—I can’t help but wonder: Have these websites and online outlets fundamentally changed the way we react to news? Are our attitudes towards these major events shaped, facilitated, and validated through our tweets, our statuses, our videos? The answer is painfully clear: Of course they are. But what are the implications? Good? Bad? Or do they encourage that old college tradition: ambivalence?

Something makes me feel just a little uneasy about it all. There’s something disturbingly self-reflexive about the media these days. Take, for instance, the recent coverage of the royal wedding, when articles about the affair were accompanied by articles about other articles. Tweets and Facebook statuses of the same event repeated the same, monotonous comments about how hot Pippa Middleton looked. There seemed to be more buzz about frivolities like the supposed flirtation between Prince Harry and Pippa than the significance of the wedding itself, a ceremony loaded with history, tradition, and expectation. We apparently need the media to tell us what the media thinks, a need that almost always leads to a dilution of quality content.

The reaction to bin Laden’s death has been no different. When the first tweet of his demise triumphantly arrived, the public decided that jokes were in order. A sampler of the most popular variants (tweeters, surprisingly, are not particularly creative):

“Donald Trump has just demanded to see bin Laden’s death certificate.”

“Osama bin Laden just blew up our Facebook news feeds. #toosoon?”

“Osama bin Laden is dead. But, like Tupac, I’m guessing he’s got a few more tapes to release.”

The comedy continued, especially in schools, across the country. My friend at Yale received, to our complete shock, an e-mail from their Chief of Police with a fake campus security alert about bin Laden’s death. A good joke, right? Ha ha! Photos of riots on various college campuses are increasingly littering news feeds around the nation. On the streets, wild chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” mingle with blaring notes of vuvuzelas and profanities shouted indiscriminately against invisible enemies.

Even as we’re being helplessly, recklessly compelled by social media into these furious, spontaneous, and collective responses, we’re simultaneously being rendered increasingly remote to the realities of these world events. We can pick apart every minute detail of the royal wedding and still not comprehend a single thing about its meaning for Britain, for the royal family, or for the world that watches with abiding attention. Similarly, caught in the fervor of the we-finally-caught-the-bad-guy moment, the current U.S. coverage of bin Laden’s death seems almost wholly composed of rote retelling of the facts, generic and exaggerated patriotism (U.S.A.! U.S.A.!), and mindless, ridiculous, speculative drivel. Analysis? Well…perhaps it’s too soon.

But the “too soon” argument doesn’t change the absurdity of the way Americans have responded to the situation. What is our merrymaking telling us? Is Osama’s death a cause for drunken celebration or careful reflection? Is it a tactical victory or purely a symbolic one? Does anyone know, or are we content with the meaningless and unfounded information our social media produce?

So I suppose it’s here that I once again arrive at ambivalence. Social media can at once electrify millions to fight for their liberties and catch those same millions in its voraciously attention-seeking, trivializing, and universal grip. But whether we like it or not, it’s redefining the way we think about the world around us.

Emily Wang is a first-year in the College.