Less than 24 hours after the worst bombing on American soil since 9/11, one of my friends posted on Facebook a picture of Darth Vader riding a unicycle wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes. I scroll through my Twitter feed and see the familiar jokes, memes, posts about food and talk of the Rockets and the Texans draft mixed in with a smattering of tweets related to the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. Even the trending topics (see the image to the right) are still filled with things like #talklikeyourmom and #theperksofdatingme.
Resilience? I don't think so. Desensitization? Probably not. Alyson Footer, the former Astro social media coordinator and current correspondent for Major League Baseball, explained to me a couple years ago for a story I was working on that the news cycle used to run 24 hours. "Now it's 24 seconds," she said.
The argument against this is that we are a nation of inattentives. We spend our time fixated on our phones and tablets and even the occasional computer screen. But one thing that narrative -- one so common to older generations for decades, probably centuries (KIDS THESE DAYS!) -- fails to comprehend is that social networking requires interaction, unlike distractions of the past including TV, radio and the like.
Instead of sitting glued to our televisions when something happens, we all immediately head for Twitter. It is not only a fantastic source of news, it is also a wonderful way to provide support to those who may be struggling. It's comforting to know that millions of other people are concerned, frustrated and aghast. It led comedian Patton Oswalt to post a poignant and touching essay on Facebook (where else could that have been published more quickly in the past?) that helps us remember that good people outnumber the bad "and we always will."
We saw terrifying and even graphic photos, but we also saw cops who looked like Rambo and first responders rushing towards the signs of chaos instead of away from them. We checked up on friends and loved ones who were near the bombings and held the virtual hands of those waiting to hear.
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So, now, about 18 hours later (at least as I write this), we're back to the semi-normal state of funny cat photos and pictures of food. But those of us who embrace social media have not suddenly forgotten what happened yesterday. Maybe we just processed it more quickly -- at least the initial part of it. We had the resources to help us better understand what was happening and what we could do to help, if anything. Most important, we had friends -- yes, people you interact with in the virtual world can be friends, too -- to help us through it right from the outset.
Almost 12 years ago, we sat in stunned silence in front of our televisions, often isolated from the world, as we saw the World Trade Center towers fall. No Twitter. No Facebook. No YouTube. No Instagram. Was the way we digested that horrible tragedy truly better than this one simply because we weren't fixated on our technology? I would argue just the opposite. Instead of the benign consumption of information, we go interactive. We check on friends and family. We offer words of encouragement.
Do some of us say really stupid things? Of course, but how is that different from IRL (In Real Life for the non-nerd)? Because as much as critics love to make the Internet the whipping boy for all that ails society, there is a reason they call it "social" networking. It connects us with real people in the real world, some of whom we would never meet in real life. And that connection, particularly in the face of senseless tragedy, is no distraction. In some instances, it's a lifesaver.