The rise of social media is nowhere more evident than in the way we deal with tragedies like Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, which killed three and injured hundreds. No surprise, the overall effect of this communications revolution is one of magnification and amplification, as reactions which in a previous era would have remained submerged, private, or local can now be shared with the world. In fact, whatever social media’s effects in terms of disseminating news and information, this function -- simply allowing ordinary people to express our feelings in upsetting, disorienting times -- may be its biggest benefit.
In terms of news, social media is kind of a mixed bag. Yes, news is delivered instantaneously via social media, but so is rumor and misinformation and rumor -- and breaking news was already available instantaneously before social media, thanks to CNN. Social media obviously excels in allowing many viewpoints and sources of information to be seen and heard, but again, this can be a mixed blessing: some people have a natural knack for reporting, but would-be citizen journalists without a clear grasp of what’s going on are not particularly helpful, and may spread confusion rather than clarifying matters.
(There’s also a distinct possibility that social media will yield clues that help find the perpetrators: law enforcement is combing bystander video of the event, and social media tip lines have been established, but at this stage we can’t know what role, if any, social media is playing in the investigation).
Of course, not all information disseminated by social media is necessarily “news” in the general interest sense: the application that leaps to mind is Google’s service for helping people locate each other after a disaster, which showed its utility in Boston when cell phone networks became overloaded immediately after the bombing. By Monday afternoon Google’s Person Finder for the Boston Marathon was tracking around 3,300 entries. Although I don’t have more current stats, I can only imagine it offered relief to quite a few anxious people in that critical immediate post-disaster period, when other communications channels were most likely to be overwhelmed or unreachable.
Social media can also help with recovery and relief efforts following disasters, and this capacity will only grow. In Boston, social media users opened up their homes to runners, spectators, and friends and families who didn’t have lodging; in addition to obviously being remarkable displays of generosity, these acts of kindness are testimony to social media’s ability to connect individual providers and consumers of services almost on the spur of the moment -- a fascinating example of temporary, ad hoc micro-marketplaces or exchanges.
But the fact is that for most Americans, after an event like the Boston Marathon bombings, these applications have limited utility: as noted, news can be obtained from multiple sources, most people probably didn’t need to use Google’s person finder, and Boston thankfully didn’t require large-scale relief efforts and charitable donations. For most of us, therefore, social media is mainly a platform that allows us to share our feelings about the event.
As I wrote previously about the marriage equality meme, this is not insignificant. In a political context like the debate over gay marriage, social media lets people state their support for an issue, which encourages their online acquaintances to voice their support, and so on, potentially triggering a chain reaction that can transform the appearance of the social media universe in just a few days. This is important for a number of reasons: it instills confidence in supporters by letting them know they are not alone, it conveys public opinion to those in power, and it fosters discussion and debate over the issue at hand.
Following an event like the Boston Marathon bombing (which I think can be safely characterized as “non-political”) social media’s real utility is in enabling catharsis. An important part of emotional recovery following a trauma is expressing our feelings to other people, who then validate our feelings by agreeing and expressing their own. Indeed, there is not much to argue about regarding the bombings -- any reasonable person understands reflexively that they are heinous, and the motives of perpetrator are frankly of scant interest to me -- but social media in this case serves a different purpose, by letting us (as Americans) tell ourselves that yes, it was wrong, and yes it is okay to be upset. And that is enough.