What our feeds showed us in Ferguson
A horror grows worse when it grows familiar – when the term “horror” can no longer contain it and it ruptures into “how things are.”
Much of what we’ve watched unfold and unravel over the past weeks in Ferguson, Mo. —
And despite cable news immersing its shaky lenses in the tumult, the nuances of the conflict were lost in the noise, as anchors looped facile narration of the nightmare amid attacks from police and protesters alike. The broadcasts of the most violent parts of the protest felt like a push-and-pull between familiar prime-time shock-and-awe warfare footage (night-vision video of tanks shrouded in plumes of tear gas . . . ) and uniquely appalling atrocity (. . . on a suburban American street).
But if you were watching #Ferguson erupt in real time online, you may have experienced another familiar dimension to the crisis — especially if you live 1,200 miles northeast of Ferguson.
Last year, just a few seconds after the two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, I spotted a tweet from a friend on Boylston Street who suspected a gas main had just burst outside his apartment. From that moment, my feed was overwhelmed with a wave of panic and speculation, which eventually resolved into a stream of eyewitness accounts and amateur detective work. Meanwhile, a flock of hashtags spread out and attempted to lasso the information into some kind of order.
As the day wore on and the search for the suspects intensified, I and others searched Twitter for immediate updates from police, journalists, and observers; we crowded onto Livestream to listen to live scanner feeds; we even checked the freshly launched Vine service for brief glimpses of the outside world as we sheltered in place.
Every laptop in town was 30 minutes ahead of the cable news teleprompters. Without the mediation of the media — no editors, anchors, or advertisers — our connection to the crisis was direct, throwing the circling commentary, cycling footage, and eagerly imposed narratives of cable news into irritatingly harsh relief.
So it goes in Ferguson — or, under #Ferguson, that is. For one thing, were it not for the spike of interest across social media on Aug. 13 — when more than 4,400 tweets per minute mentioned #Ferguson — it may have been tuned out altogether in the national media. But #Ferguson hasn’t just clocked a chronology of the conflict, it’s opened up a space to document the many dimensions of the problem — views that can’t be seen from “The Situation Room.”
Some of the most gripping documents of the Ferguson uprising have come from St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who has been posting video (an example below) of the protests to Vine since they first broke out. You can witness a police line incrementally advance and remove him from his car; you can hear him gasp as clouds of tear gas blow through; and, most noticably, you can hear each protester’s voice, distinct from the din of protest. Somehow, these tiny clips have a way of highlighting their message rather than truncating it.
Elsewhere online, Reddit hosted a massive live feed that corralled hundreds of tweets and police reports and delivered thousands of viewers to Ustream webcasts of St. Louis County Police scanners. Dozens of journalists flooded Twitter with updates from the ground. And on Vine (below), rapper Tef Poe advised fellow protesters to carry spray bottles of diluted Maalox to help endure gas attacks.
But though our connection to Ferguson through #Ferguson feels unfettered, it isn’t necessarily unfiltered.
Our Twitter feeds may not pass through the cumbersome algorithms that smooth out and filter what content we encounter on our Facebook News Feeds (accounting for the noted absence of Ferguson posts on Facebook when the conflict first flared up), but they are dictated by who and what we follow — our own choices, the very model of curated attunement that authors of algorithms aspire to. We tend to be our own finest filters, and if you don’t believe me, just open your personal browser history and survey the not-so-wide world of your Web.
Our consumption of online news is driven by a hunger for immediacy, relvance, quantity, and convenience (not to mention an expectation that it should be free). It’s a now-now-more-more approach to news that is especially perilous when paired with our inclination to “like” what we like, and hide what we don’t.
Some have rightly identified #Ferguson as a wake-up call about issues of net neutrality – that allowing corporate forces to mediate or moderate our access to the Internet would be a forfeiture of its fundamentally open exchange of information.
But in having it all we must also exercise caution: Confronted by the ceaseless deluge of data, clashing perspectives, and viral polemics that our feeds deliver, we run the risk of becoming our own overworked, underpaid editors. As our culture rushes past us as content, we risk delegating the course of our discourse to trends, and mistaking exhaustion and overload as the rewards for engagement. We risk making our horrors too easy to hide.