August 24th, 2012
Disturbing photos posted in the immediate aftermath of the tragic Empire State Building shooting have caused widespread cries of “too soon.” Consensus on “The Internet” (you know, that monolithic entity that has its own voice apparently) is that those posting graphic images of the shooting so soon after the event showed a lack of respect for the victims.
Slate posted a piece titled The Empire State Building Shooting Photos on Instagram: Were They Too Soon? which included one of the photos. Slate was subsequently beaten senseless by Facebook users who recognized that the journal, in what appeared to be a cheap, exploitative move, was both asking the question and committing the act it was questioning. One user commented:
“Technology apparently warps people’s minds. Really, if I saw a dead body in front of me like that, my first thought wouldn’t be to get my camera out and get a salacious photo of it. This smacks of ‘I’ll-get-famous-if-I-photograph-this!’ type mentality, which current culture seems to support, and which adds to the righteous indignation of amateurs who are quite wrong about all this, I feel.”
The immediate (and simultaneous in some cases) availability of images of disturbing events is nothing new. On September 11, 2001, didn’t nearly all of us watch the second plane fly into the twin towers live on TV? As horrifying as that image was, it is indelibly scratched into our collective conscience, and has served, for better or worse, as a defining moment in our history. It put us on alert, just as the JFK assassination did nearly 40 years before, that in the blink of an eye, the world had changed forever. And it was infinitely more powerful because of its immediacy.
And even though we sometimes can’t stomach this immediacy, it is also something we demand. The ability to quickly take quality photographs and share them with friends is a key driver of social networking and Web 2.0 development efforts. Instagram sold to Facebook for $1B. In 2005, Yahoo paid $35M for Flickr. And critics are applauding faster photo handling as a key feature of Facebook’s iPhone app upgrade this week (the app, along with Instagram, used to take and post most pictures like those we’re talking about).
They used to say in response to critics of TV, if you don’t like what’s on change the channel or turn it off. Social networking is the channel we are unable to turn off. Instantaneous, graphic coverage of even the most violent and disturbing events in the news is something we will all have to get used to. And something we asked for.