I woke up yesterday morning to a report from NY1 that it could take months before we learn the motive of the Aurora, Colo. murderer. Then I arrived at the office, logged into Facebook, and saw that youthful face with the shock of flaming red hair all over my feed. Could that be his motive?
Reports said that the killer wasn’t an avid social media user, with the exception of Adult Friend Finder. We need to redefine what it means to use social media. One doesn’t need to actively participate in social networking services in order to effectively use them. To manipulate social media is to use it.
The Colorado killer, whose name I can’t even bring myself to write, must be thriving on his social media notoriety. Ten years ago, if I didn’t want to hear more about the murderer, I could choose to tune out the media. I could turn off the TV, stick to FM radio stations, skip newspapers and magazines, and avoid CNN.com and Drudge Report for a few days or weeks. That might have taken more effort than it was worth, and I would have lost something in the process, but I could manage it.
Now, I can’t. My most important media sources are my friends and peers, the ones I choose to friend and follow. I can’t turn them off. I can’t say, “No more photos of the mass murderer, please.” I can’t say, “I’m over posts about the presidential candidates until the debates happen and we can try to find one shred of substance hidden amongst the partisan attacks.” I can’t say, “Why do I need to hear about what sports team you’re rooting for right now?” The reason I can’t say that is that I care. I learn more about people that way. I get closer to them. It’s the only news source I can’t turn off because I don’t want to turn it off.
That’s where the manipulators come in. Manipulators aren’t always evil. Look at the most-funded projects from Kickstarter. These aren’t getting funds through massive ad budgets and brand building. These are brands being built from scratch. The companies don’t own much owned media at all. They propose what they hope is a great project or product, create a compelling story, and milk the press where they can. Practically the only way these projects get funded is if they wind up spreading through social media.
Brands do their part to manipulate social media as well. When Taco Bell airlifted a truck full of tacos to a remote Alaska town, it wasn’t targeting the town’s 6,200 residents. Neither was TNT when it staged a seemingly spontaneous action epic in a quiet Belgian town. Both were YouTube bait. TNT racked up 36 million views and a Cannes Gold Lion. Yes, these brands may be participants in social media as well, but they created events that only matter if people share the footage. It hardly matters if the original event even happened; the live witnesses were not the target audience at all.
And now we have the killer. He crafted a story. He carried out his plot. Hundreds of millions of people are talking about him, and he may ensure his story continues for months, or perhaps years. His motives are currently unknown, but how could he not relish the attention? Just the idea of it -- that his manipulation may be happening right now -- makes it all the more tempting to turn it all off.
Then, I keep reading. There are the victims’ memorials, and the testimonials to life. There are links to the essay by Jason Alexander, who offered the most eloquent analysis of the Second Amendment that I have ever read. There’s Slate exploring the phenomenon of men giving their lives so that their girlfriends could live. There’s context. There’s insight. There’s meaning.
I can’t shut it off. I don’t want to shut it off. I know what I must do instead: accept it, embrace it, and be a part of it.