Michaelmas and Me: 4/16 and the Internet

Perhaps I am encroaching on Tristan’s territory (see The Rest of the Internet); if so, I apologise, but this week I’m going to look at the role of the internet in the development of the story surrounding the Virginia Tech massacre (what has become known, to Americans, as 4/16 – I can’t help but feel that they have a predilection for branding events in overly-simplistic terms).

As an instantly updated, live streaming pantheon of information, the internet is, clearly, the one source that has the potential to unite people everywhere through the establishment of channels of debate and fresh news bulletins. The BBC, CNN and other news networks no longer control news content; with a population that has access to forums where they can post their views, updates appear much faster than correspondents on the ground can react. This much is obvious. But it seems that so much of this story, perhaps the most tragic single event in the USA since 9/11 (see the common theme with the branding?) has been generated, distributed, reacted to and developed online, by those who were there, who took mobile phone videos, pictures, who called their friends and families, and who witnessed the events first hand. Especially in a situation that was already confusing, what with the second attack following the first two hours or so later on, you could be forgiven for thinking that an excess of information would cloud the issue further, and make it even more difficult to decipher. But, and I hate to sound morbid (if I do please forgive me), the atrocity in question seems to lend itself rather well to the proliferation of online data – between the first and second attacks, the killer, Cho Seung-Hui, sent a package to the US news network NBC which included a ‘manifesto’ (view the truncated version here) and twenty-three videos. NBC, out to attract as much attention to themselves as possible (and who can blame them – any other network would do exactly the same, which is why the criticism leveled at Al-Jazeera for showing clips of Osama Bin-Laden’s speeches is entirely hypocritical) posted the information on the internet, including the video which has become notorious.

Of course, all of this flew around the web at such a fast pace that very few people could keep up – with Hui’s guilt sealed, searches rocketed – even today, the terms ‘cho seung-hui’ and ‘virginia tech’ are still (at time of writing) top of Technorati’s blog search list. It is a testament to the power of the internet that for many it is their first port of call for information of all kinds, a fact which often makes me despair. The quality of the content does, of course, vary wildly, from ill-informed diary entries, to musings about whether he was possessed by the devil, to level-headed commentary. Intersecting it all, there are some nice gestures, like this blog, set up on WordPress just to act as a noticeboard for people who want information about friends or family members, or ‘Hokies 4/16: A Memorial Project’, which is pretty self-explanatory. User-generated content ruled the day, especially clips taken on mobile phone cameras:

The tragedy about using media distribution channels like youtube for subjects like this is that the gravity inevitably becomes lost – internet viewers, raised on films and games, experts at becoming detached from reality, go mad with exclamation marks (“VIRGINIA TECH SHOOTINGS – Cell phone reporter from VT campus!”) and trivialise matters with inane abbreviations (” wow.. i wonder who was the one screaming after the video ended.. itr kinda sounded like the guy… omg … this is crazy”). And I can’t help but wonder why someone would wish to post their experiences on the internet; at times, it seems as though the rival camera clips tussling for top billing on popurls.com and digg.com are engaged in a sick war of one-upmanship, as though their fateful recordings of muffled gunshots are worth more than those made by other people.

And then the backlash against multimedia, web-based intervention began. Questions have been asked about how college killings have become an aspect of American alternative culture – Cho Seung-Hui, in his rambled testament, talked about martyrs “like Eric and Dylan”, the two boys who carried out the Columbine killings. The police carrying out the investigation, family members and students at VT have branded NBC “insensitive” for broadcasting the material, while many bloggers have been quick to establish a form of internet self-regulation by lambasting the presentation of the workings of a deranged mind. Harry Shearer, who writes for The Huffington Post (one of the US’ foremost politically opinionated blogular platforms) said this: “what is the possible journalistic explanation for splashing Cho’s self-dramatizing poses and self-justifying bullshit over network and cable air?” He goes on: “…a hundred thousand self-pitying mentally ill young men (and women?) have just been shown the road to glory one more time.” A fair point, and one that many other media figures have been quick to make. It is the instant update nature of the internet that makes this cycle of comment and counter-comment inevitable; the preliminary assessment and the rush and the push to get there first lead to mistakes. Of course, the video clips and the photos from Cho’s ‘media manifesto’ were also shown on television, but it was the web that seized the initiative and made the most of the material, with browsers able to play and replay material, forward it, blog it and comment on it. Youtube’s facility for posting video responses to existing footage seems worthy of mention:

And, of course, the moderating commentators (everyone, basically) react: “nice try, but you never really addressed the point…the video of the guy is out there, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, and your so called “protest” isn’t really doing much damage to the viewings of the killer video’s so your ‘boycott’ or ‘protest’ is pretty much nullified.”

But now everyone who follows the news has had the opportunity to give their two-cents about Cho’s paralysis of moral objectivity, the “almost pornographic” (as one prominent newspaper commentator put it) nature of the spectacle has become tired faster than most stories; it is a sorry state of affairs when tragedy falls from being newsworthy, but it seems like it will go that way. The horror of the event has been overshadowed by the ill thought out news coverage it received. Every possible avenue of investigation has already been followed and NBC have come away with a bloody nose – but if they ever get the opportunity to throw another story to the internet-based lions, don’t think they’ll pass it up.

Zeitgeisting It Up! – This week’s report from Google’s popular searches list centres around the death of Kurt Vonnegut, one of America’s most respected authors, who wrote Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle (among other things, obviously). The Times can manage a better obituary than me, so I’ll let you peruse what they have to say.

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Filed under Blogging, internet, Michaelmas and Me, TV, virginia tech, websites

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