Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The aftermath: group-think, opportunism, and our celebrity-enamored society

After the horrific events at the Boston Marathon yesterday, many people have--as is now standard operating procedure--used social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to express their sadness and the like over the needless loss of life and the cruel means through which those lives were taken and many others forever changed.

It's understandable, I guess. Personally, I limited myself to sharing emergency numbers for people who might be trying to find friends or family who were present for the event. But many are more given to wearing their hearts on their sleeves, thus expounding on the tragedy, how it made them feel, and what not. And such thoughts were of course shared, "liked," or retweeted by others to show agreement or support. Again, all good and well in my opinion.

Beyond that, I always understand the need to find some sort of comfort in times of turmoil, in the aftermath of tragedy. It is human nature; we look to each other for support, we always have and we always will. And there's no way around a simple truth here: some need that support far moreso than others and some are better at providing it far moreso than others. In the world of social media, these truths play out in very obvious ways, with certain expressed ideas that just resonate with people better than others. It is what it is and--again, to be clear on this point--there's nothing wrong with this at all, it can be and probably is quite cathartic for many, many people.

That said, I am troubled by what appears to be a steady surrendering of individual thoughts on such matters as the Boston Marathon bombing to the collective, as it were, through the proliferation of statements from people who are basically just celebrities, who enjoy a large platform because of that status, alone. Consider two of the most "shared" and "liked" posts on Facebook yesterday about the tragedy.

First, there is this one from Star Trek and Howard Stern alumnus George Takei:
When tragedies strike, heroes rise to meet the challenge: the first responders seen sprinting toward the blast site, the runners who changed course to run to local hospitals to donate blood, and the fine citizens of Boston who at once opened their homes to marathoners in need of a place to stay. When we come together, we cannot be brought down.
Liked over 360,000 times and shared over 66,000 times, I saw it on my feed from multiple people.

Next, there is this one from comedian Patton Oswalt:
Boston. Fucking horrible.

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, "Well, I've had it with humanity."

But I was wrong. I don't know what's going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here's what I DO know. If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."
Liked over 310,000 times and shared more than a mindbogglingly 233,000 times, it is the definition of a viral Facebook post.

Both statements found their way into the mainstream media as well, particularly Oswalt's (though minus the "fucking horrible"; why he chose to dirty up the post is a discussion for another day). And on a particular messageboard I frequent, both statements were introduced by others into a thread about the Boston Marathon bombings.

I have nothing against Takei or Oswalt. In fact, I'll even call myself a "fan" of both, though I follow neither on any social media source. And there's nothing wrong with the sentiments either has expressed, in general. I think both over-estimate the "heroes" and "the good" out there, but that's neither hear nor there. That said, I don't see anything particularly novel, awe-inspiring, or the like in the above statements. Thoughts from other non-celebrity friends were just as good as these, if not better. So why the virality of these statements? Why did people I know--who are in fact quite adept at expressing themselves on this topic--choose to basically abdicate their thoughts in favor of those from celebrities?

Moreover, I also can't help but wonder about the need of celebrity and talking head types to "get out in front" on such things (and I'm NOT speaking about Takei and Oswalt specifically, at all; I believe both were quite sincere in their remarks). Tragedy becomes opportunity, to increase exposure, to grow "followers," to be lauded for one's expressions of sympathy. And such an approach is immediately validated by people who seem to labor under the illusion that celebrity-type status adds gravitas to ideas and thoughts.

It is, in my view, a troubling development. While it is certainly a far cry from being told what to think by someone in authority, it nevertheless suggests an increased tendency to buy in to such a paradigm. In my view, one thousand individual expressions--regardless of literary quality--trump one thousand or more clicks on a button. By a long shot. While I'm certainly glad to see people like Takei and Oswalt moved by such tragedies, I really care far less about what they have to say than I do about what people I know and respect have to say, about how those close to me are personally affected. That's where I find comfort, not in the words of people whom I do not and likely will never know.

Perhaps some may feel this is the wrong time to broach the subject, to question motivations and the like, but I'm not sure if there is ever a good time, given the fleeting nature of discussions on social media and the propensity of people to forget the past in short order. I apologize to anyone who finds this discussion inappropriate or insulting, but I truly believe we are slowly surrendering our own individualism, in favor of a collective mindset defined by our celebrity-enamored culture, largely thanks to the rise of social media.

Cheers, all.

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