About the Author: Repeat guest blogger Lauren H., who doesn’t have a Twitter account or a smart phone and actually enjoys writing letters to people on her typewriter, also has a nonprofit (www.lovemine.org) that uses social media all the time. Here, she blogs about the controversial celebration in front of the White House.
As I saw the news Monday morning I noticed something: in the crowds celebrating Osama Bin Laden’s death at the White House on Sunday, most of them were college students. Watch any video or slideshow, and note all the college apparel. Google Georgetown, American, George Washington, or Catholic Universities and “White House Osama” and you’ll find a student newspaper article, Youtube video, or major news outlet with a correlating story. It makes sense, because DC is not exactly a hoppin’ place at midnight on a worknight, and if you’re going to bring hundreds of people into the streets, its probably young people. The rally in DC was markedly different from those in New York; in New York, the crowds included many people who lived and worked in New York on 9/11, and somber remembrance of that day’s tragedy was as much a part of the occasion as celebration. In DC, kids who were an average of ten years old on 9/11 climbed trees, chanted, sang, and crowd surfed.
The students in DC are either in or about to start finals. The “spontaneous” rally was publicized on Facebook and Twitter, and as any college student knows, Facebook and Twitter usage has a close relationship to the academic calendar. Like Sunday nights, finals week bring an increased flurry of social media obsession. Facebook and Twitter are procrastination’s best friend.
So, pardon me if you find this question cynical, but- how many of these bright-eyed individuals were there in genuine celebration, and how many were running with whatever meant not studying? (And how many started with the latter but will not staunchly avow the former?)
I’m generalizing, of course- read this Georgetown student’s column for words of genuine celebrant. And, this may seems like it doesn’t matter to you. But it does. It matters because these are the images the rest of the world saw. Let’s be honest here, what matters is that these are the images the Arab world saw. While I feel some sense of relief Bin Laden is gone, my next thoughts turned to the rest of Al Qaeda, the rest of the world’s terror organization, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the upheaval in the Middle East and ever more uncertain future of Islamism, including retaliation against America and its allies for the killing of Bin Laden. Numerous commentators have written on why we should not be so quick to celebrate violence, and I must agree.
I’m from the DC area, and on the days following 9/11, I heard story after story of friends’ parents who almost died at the Pentagon ,and had their offices destroyed, or felt the building shake while getting coffee downstairs, or watched the plane crash into the building from the highway, or as an airline attendant, checked in Flight 77, including the terrorists, at the airport….it goes on. Our neighborhood is populated by some pretty high-ranking members of the military and intelligence services. I saw them show up (or not) in uniform, watched their kids as they left on deployment or field assignments. I understand the motivation to celebrate.
I also applaud and marvel at the ability of social media to unify and inform the world- Egypt and Iran come to mind. In 2007, I was in my first year of college in California when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred; Facebook status updates were the most reliable method of knowing whether my friends and former classmates were safe (or not). Every year since, it is Facebook that reminds me of the date and gives voice to the collective remembrances of the Hokie community.
So I wonder about the power we give social media. It allows us to share joys and sorrows, to inform ourselves and hear quickly first-hand accounts of terribly important events. But social media also allows us to share the worst- rumors, flip insults, and casual embrace of “truthiness”, and perhaps in this case, casual, hormone-fueled celebrations of violence? Would the same “spontaneous” demonstration have occurred next month, during summer break, or last month, when it wasn’t finals and students weren’t so primed for a good ole distraction draped in the red, white, and blue?
Media always distorts- simply by covering one story and not the other, by featuring one picture and not the other. It must be selective because it cannot report the entire world all at once. Social media has the power to explosively magnify some stories, for better or for worse. My point is nothing new. I worry about the way we use media. I probably always will. I hope a thinking society always does.
What about you? Were you in DC on Sunday? Did social media get you there? Do any aspects of social media worry you? Which ones, and why?