When news of the Boston Marathon bombings began filtering to the world, the social media networks exploded. People around the world were posting links to television and newspaper stories detailing the tragedy. Citizen journalists were texting and sharing photos from their phones at the actual bomb site. Yet as the horrific story played out, I realized that there were actual stages of social media activity.
The first stage involved connecting. People from around the world were reaching out to Beantown family members and friends to make sure that they were alive and well. Throughout the late afternoon and into that first night, an online super highway of relief, sorrow and fear encircled the social media world, sustained by prayers and well wishes.
As people’s initial panic quelled, there came a broader swell of online sharing in the form of inspirational graphics. This second stage of social media interaction included images of Boston’s skyline, blue and yellow memorial ribbons and bleeding hearts, many including the reverential edict, “Boston Strong”.
The intense search for the bombers brought about a third stage of social media reaction, focused on the marathoners as well as the innocent bystanders who had been injured and killed in the dual bomb attacks. Tragic details of a family who lost their 8-year old son sparked hours of particularly thoughtful and passionate online reaction. It was as if the world was mourning in unison. Then, without warning, the social media tide of goodness and caring turned.
Stage four hit fast and hard as online details and rumors about the bombing suspects began to weave into the world’s awareness. As much as there was information, there was misinformation. Anxious social media posters railed against cautionary law enforcement officials versus the irresponsible “first to report” news journalists. Ultimately sides were taken, lines were drawn. The previous online reactions of shock and gratitude mutated to anger and dissension. The worldwide internet atmosphere felt hostile and ugly.
Stage five wasn’t much better as the identity of the bombers was confirmed and details about their crimes revealed. Within the still remaining, “Boston Strong” online images, angry words and accusatory stories took center stage. Even more disturbing were the comments that often followed, with people employing foul language and ethnic slurs to emphasize their points.
In the hours leading up to the final capture of the bombing brothers, social media networks were enflamed by the relentless media reports and continual replaying of the violent bomb attacks. Lost was the nucleus of the tragic story of the people who died or were injured. Gone was the gratitude for those still alive. Instead it felt as if the social media sites had become some bizarre video game or sporting event with people cheering or jeering based on their perspective of the ongoing story.
When the bombing drama ended in a Watertown backyard, the images of grateful Boston citizens applauding their dedicated law enforcers calmed the social media fury. Gradually those who had been railing against every element of the bombing tragedy returned to posting inspirational quotes and funny cartoons. It was in that calming relief that I wondered about the benefits of the heavily traveled social media highway.
Are we really a better people because we know news immediately, as it happens? Do we have a better standard of life because we can post a comment from our homes or offices that literally can be heard around the world? Is the ability to debate and discuss without rules, regulations or respect for each other truly essential to our evolving universe?
If so, when is the point of no return when faced with such heinous worldwide interaction?