The Internet as Bully Pulpit

Reflecting on tragedy

Posted Dec 19, 2012

As the news of the massacre in Newtown unfolded, I was struck by how being “wired” has fed our need for being in the know—a cultural kind of FOMO or Fear of Missing Out which I’ve ascribed to the Millennial generation but I now think may have affected us all. That fear has fed a need for instantaneous knowledge and facts, even when they’re not available, something that was painfully obvious on Friday and the days that followed. Google search turns us all into amateur detectives, starved for information, and that’s precisely what happened when the world focused on Ryan Lanza, the shooter’s brother, who was sitting in his office and was unlucky enough to have a Facebook, which his brother did not.  

Facebook postings went from elegiac and then devolved into the heated and vituperative, shouting matches between gun advocates and their opponents, a brawl in the village square of the twenty-first century. I will admit to playing my part. Our Fear of Missing Out has ratcheted up Our Need to be Heard, whether we have the facts in hand or not. I’m well aware, by blogging about this, that I’m not exempt. 

All of that coexists with the way fame and notoriety have become interchangeable since Columbine, although I wonder whether it didn’t happen long before that.  For the Boomer generation, perhaps it happened when we watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald in real time, on a black-and-white television.  Post-Columbine, though, despite the avalanche of media, there’s a new kind of protocol as newscasters correctly identified the shooter and then declined to speak his name, as if doing so would grant him the kind of attention the Columbine killers so yearned for.  Meanwhile, his name scrolled at the bottom nonetheless, as it did in countless news feeds. 

In the era of Google-search, though, a name is gold and that’s what made the now-famous blog post, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” go viral.  Would it have garnered any attention — much less the millions of views and commentaries it inspired — if it’d been titled “Thinking the Unthinkable,” as it is today?   Would you have Googled “Thinking the Unthinkable” in the last week?  Like so many other commentators, there’s much that makes me uncomfortable about that blog, not least of which is the calculation of the title, with its grandiose assumption about “knowing” Adam Lanza.  Then too there’s the use of her child, whose picture she included, while giving him a pseudonym.  But even more, there’s how inconsistent the tone of that post was, compared to what else she’s written, which was largely angry and disturbing.  Since I’m an English major type, that’s what sticks.  Fame grab or an honest cry for help?  You tell me.  I wasn’t one of the people who re-posted her post but I know people who did without reading or thinking about it and a number of them are sorry they did.

The way in which our Need to Know now and immediately has been frustrated by this case bears reflecting on.  Maybe the instantaneous way we’ve gotten used to reacting and responding in a text, post, and Twitter-filled world needs to be looked at.  Maybe there’s something to be learned from not having our Need to Know gratified simplistically.  Maybe all of us need to eaxmine our need to hit “send” and what blurting on so many levels is costing us and our children.  What do we do when there’s so little to Google?   Maybe we need to let the lack of information jolt us out of reactivity and into thoughtfulness.  The shooter left no manifesto.  He had no Facebook.  There are apparently very few photographs of him, which is itself an oddity in the digital world.  He smashed his computer hard drive.  All we’re left with is the terrible, gut-wrenching devastation he left in his wake, a glimpse into the heart of darkness.  

And, alas, a Google search does nothing to assuage what that feels like.