Sitting in a cab in Mumbai, this is how I came to know about the earthquake in Nepal: from a flurry of status updates on my Facebook timeline. The first one commented how Bengalis went scurrying for their bottles of Gelusil, thinking their heads were reeling from the mutton kosha they had gobbled for lunch. The next one wondered if Mamata Banerjee would rename Kolkata ‘Dolonchapa’ after the quake – ‘dola’ in Bengali means swaying. Yet another commented on the irony of watching Final Destination on the laptop as the quake struck Delhi. I had chuckled at and ‘liked’ roughly seven status messages in the time it took for the traffic signal to turn green.
In another hour the cacophony that had seized my Facebook timeline as people experienced the quake first-hand died into a murmur and the first reports of deaths started pouring in. If I can recollect the news pushes on my phone correctly, the toll climbed to 500 from 49 in an hour and then went to the shocking, numbing spiral that crossed 3,500 in a day. The earthquake was not funny anymore.
It’s perhaps difficult to put in words what one feels after the first flush of social media excitement washes over and a reality as massive, as fearful as the Nepal earthquake becomes evident. It’s a strange part-apologetic, partly self-critical feeling that makes you want to undo things you have done on an impulse. Like writing a status update. Or liking one.
What it also reveals is how social media has changed the way a news is absorbed by people across the world. Mostly, how social media has conditioned us to react before completely absorbing an incident. With the culture of narrating events ‘live’ on the internet and the promise of attention it comes with – especially if you are the witty early bird – some of us can’t wait to have the first thought that crosses our mind following an event published on Facebook or Twitter. And we look at events not so much as events as a collection of potential tweets and status updates.
Hours after the first wave of comments on the earthquake died, a host of other status messages berating the wisecracks on the quake surfaced on Twitter and Facebook. Of the many attractive things that your Facebook offers you, one is also a moral high horse.
“Following any disaster, deeply offensive gags swiftly proliferate around playgrounds, workplaces, pubs and, of course, the internet. The website Sickipedia, which prides itself as “the world’s best collection of sick jokes”, proudly displays dozens of user-generated contributions about Japan,” Jon Kelly wrote for BBC in 2011.
He also quotes a psychologist Dr Oliver Double and observes, “And when it comes to subtlety and nuance, Dr Double notes, 140 characters makes life difficult.”
Psychological Science quotes psychoanalyst Peter McGraw of University of Colorado as saying, “Humor arises from potentially negative situations.” Psychological and physical distance from a tragedy, notes the journal, often makes tragedies fodder for humour. That was perhaps the case with many of us who were slightly thrilled at having our chairs take a tumble or our beds starting to tremble. Add to it, the subconscious need to immediately announce to the world that you have experienced something out of the ordinary and it’s not difficult to see how the funny status messages came into being.
One has to also consider how cynicism and sarcasm seems to be the preferred idiom of any comment or observation on the internet. In fact, the culture of memes thrives on sarcasm, the ‘Grumpy Cat’ is a powerful brand of dark internet humour on this day and people go gaga over a sarcasm-spewing internet character called ‘Aunty Acid’. The internet has actually made cynicism a thriving industry by itself.
More than anything else, participating in the social media circus makes responding to events and incidents less of a private experience and more of a public performance. And it almost prods you to react. As your Twitter feed or Facebook timeline gets flooded with ‘reactions’ and issues start ‘trending’, you feel the peer pressure pushing you to add your bon mot and your social media accounts become the measure of how much you care, or not. Also, how much you matter, or not.
Hours after we had laughed about the earthquake which had only left our heads reeling, we also shared news of the horror that the quake was in its entirety. We shared links urging each other to help trace people, help send relief. In one part, it felt like making a wrong right. In another part, this time around, we had waited to understand a situation more fully before reacting to it on a social media platform. And this time, hoarding ‘likes’ was not one of our intentions.
As we hurriedly typed those funny status messages on Facebook as the news of the earthquake broke, we were perhaps working on the same impulse which made us type out one joke after another as Rahul Gandhi took to the microphone for a speech. It’s the same kind of impatience that made people world over RIP Chinua Achebe on Facebook a month back this year, two years after he had died. Because in this day and time, achievement is also measured by the number of retweets one has amassed in a day. Maybe, this earthquake will change this? But that’s doubtful because so many Facebook users happily marked themselves safe using the new FB tool not because they were anywhere near the quake but because it was a new way to get a little extra social media attention.
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