Last week I was, like most Americans and many around the world, hooked on news and social media for updates in the developing case of the Boston Marathon bombings. The constantly refreshed browsers around the world drove the demand for updates, leading to jumped conclusions, factual inaccuracies, and sensationalist coverage, NY Post and CNN being perhaps the most egregious offenders, even going so far as to implicate innocent people. Social media has also been criticized for how its users’ insatiable quest for information generated legions of wannabe Sherlocks and amateur CSI analysts that also unfairly implicated innocent people. As the first bombing in the age of social media, this event will surely lead to a lot of soul-searching media analysis in the coming months, but for now I’d like to muse on my experience when suspect #2, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, was caught.
Having spent the better part of the afternoon glued to media in anticipation of somehow being “connected” at the moment of apprehension, I left as evening settled in for the Nationals-Mets game at Citi Field (which I’d been looking forward to for months). Wanting to of course spend more attention on the game, I nevertheless frequently checked my smartphone for updates, eventually stumbling across the Boston Globe’s Twitter account, which I figured would be the most current and reputable. As the game went on, I noticed weird posts about someone in a boat. Eventually, as the suspect was apprehended faint chants swelled up of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, prompting me to check Twitter, and I imagine many others did the same because as that chant faded, another began with more volume and so on for the rest of the inning. While I very strongly take issue with what was originally an international sports chant being used for the apprehension of an American citizen in connection with a crime (both logically and politically), this chant has quite the checkered past, especially post-9/11. Though clearly in this instance the overlap with sports culture is rather obvious, since the assassination of Osama Bin Laden this cheer has been used for patriotic (one could even say nativist) responses to American military action in public gatherings. Dzhokar is a US citizen, however, so the use of the chant seems both preposterous, considering both “good” and “bad” guy lay claim to the chant’s subject, and misguidedly aligning all that we could put under the realm of “justice” into national identity, but this is quite possibly a debate for another time.
After about five minutes of this murmuring chant, the stadium had confirmed the reports with enough reputable sources and posted the news on the scoreboard, leading to collective cheering and even larger chants of “U-S-A!” It would seem last Friday CitiField (and many other ballparks, I’m sure) became a physical analogy to cyberspace. In a way, the information “went viral” in space. As more people “liked” what they saw on their phones, more people looked on their phones to see, and so on. Each rumbling or cheer caused more people to check their personal screen, which in turn spread the news quicker than the final “mass media” address of the jumbotron. In public space, we interact with our personal screens at different, individual rates, but we are still reacting to this content in space shared with others. If I am on the 7 train and see a guy with a Mets hat looking at his phone and pumping his fist, I am going to check the score on my phone. Similarly, when walking down the street if I pass by three people taking a picture of something at the top of a building across the street, I’m going to look up and maybe see a hawk in a windowsill I wouldn’t have noticed originally. Their attention to the unique event went viral – in space.
Many have lamented the way mobile devices take us out of our public spaces or looked only to more explicit examples of merging virtual and physical space (such as Grindr or augmented reality), but the relationship between our moving, interacting, social bodies and our individual attention to screens is far more complex. What I experienced at Citi Field last Friday was a small example of how this can unfold much quicker than we think.