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Virtual Visits to the Dark Side of Others' Lives

Can Social Media be a "Map of the Stars" Tour into Celebrity Tragedies

Recently, actress Amanda Bynes reportedly wrote on Twitter that a microchip in her brain made her tweet very hurtful things about her father. Of course, no one knows the truth of what might have led her to tweet either the earlier accusations, or the later incredible explanation. But, on that very same day, she was the number one Hot Search on Google.

Are Twitter and Google Virtual Tourism?

To understand this fascination, let’s consider a radical concept—that social media and search engines are the virtual-world’s equivalent of tour-guides and traveling. In a three-dimensional world, we hire guides to show us fascinating macabre, taking trips to see gravesites, places of inhumane behaviors, and the homes of tragedies. The tourism industry refers to this “dark tourism” or “thanatourism.” There is a place which studies dark tourism, headed by Dr. Philip Stone, who is the Director of the UK’s University of Central Lancashire’s Institute for Dark Tourism Research. What if we now travel into the lives of others, or the history of places, not just by driving or flying somewhere, but through experiencing details of someone or someplace through Facebook, Google searches or Twitter? Our browsers become the planes, trains and automobiles of our mind, taking us into places and people’s lives, like an always-available secret door in Being John Malkovich. We simply fire-up our iPads, laptops, or phones and visit the sad and tragic events of a place or person’s life.

Why the “Dark” Interest?

Dorina Buda and her co-authors published a thought-provoking article in the Annals of Tourism Research (2014) in which she argues that tourism includes the provoking of emotions. They argue that horrific events, including war-zones and locations of tragedies, bring forward the tourists feelings through empathy—and tie the visitors at a deep level to the place and its events. If we take that notion a step further, and apply it to “virtual” tourism, we can understand why you and I find unfortunate stories of others so captivating. We “tour” the virtual landscape of celebrities’ lives. Our fascination with the details of torrid affairs makes us tune-in when the ID channel sensationalizes the misfortunes of ordinary people.

These virtual tours trigger feelings in us all. We feel sympathy for the unfortunate, righteous indignation when the exalted stumble, or empathy for tragic events happening to people like us. In the case of Amanda Bynes, we likely felt sympathy for her turmoil when she lashed out at her father (even if there was no rational basis for her anger). Maybe we got the feelings of being so out of control that it’s as if a microchip was controlling us, too. No doubt many of the 200,000+ searches wanted to know what happened to the star of The Amanda Show and What I Like About You, someone we feel like we know and care about. We forget that we don't really know Ms. Bynes, herself....only her characters or what we read about her on Twitter or Google. But, when we hear about Ms. Bynes' troubles, we connect to her through our empathy and our feelings bind us to the “virtual landscape” of her story.

We imagine the heartbreak felt by Ms. Bynes' family, because our emotions for them remind us of our own sadness when a loved-one suffers or falters. Ms. Bynes' story becomes like a war-torn place, or a haunted hotel in New Orleans. Like our emotions from a ghost tour, we feel something from what we hear or read about Ms. Bynes. We connect to Ms. Bynes through those feelings …..even if the bond exists only during a tour of the virtual world.

Being John Malkovitch

Institute for Dark Tourism Research

Buda’s article on Dark Tourism

Hot Trends on Google

Amanda Bynes story