When the events started unfolding in Boston late last night, a lot of people on the West Coast (as well as light sleepers on the East) were glued to the news. “News” here doesn’t really mean CNN, which seemed mostly useful as comic relief (even though they weren’t doing anything different than they ever do), but Twitter. Through a stream of reports from locals like Seth Mnookin, people monitoring Boston police and fire scanners online, wide-ranging media outlets retweeted by motivated parties, and online sources like Reddit, details slowly leaked out. But these details were half-formed, often contradictory, and largely turned out to be untrue, even if no official correction was ever issued. For instance, when I went to bed last night around 1am PST, Twitter was sure that one of the suspects was Sunil Tripathi, an Indian-American Brown student who had disappeared a month ago; Reddit had been fingering him as one of the people in the photos released by the FBI, and through a game of media telephone it became a certainty that this was confirmed by law enforcement. By the time I woke up, however, the subjects were instead two brothers from the Caucasus, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Tripathi was still — tragically, horribly, as all of this is — nowhere to be found.
The problem I’m concerned with here is less about the people finding and distributing the information. It’s about the people consuming the information, as I was. What good does it do us to follow the story as it unfolds? Certainly some pieces of the information were incredibly useful to Boston-area residents trying to stay safe, but it seemed that local TV stations were on top of the situation from the beginning, and the MIT emergency alert system effectively notified students after the shooting there. Additional Twitter reportage was not necessary, though retweets of the alerts certainly helped as an amplifier — just as word-of-mouth distribution of the information doubtless did as well, even if it was less visible.
But what about me there on the West Coast, checking my Twitter feed as I should have been winding down my day? It felt important to do, somehow. Certainly Twitter kept telling me how important it was, how unique and revolutionary an event it was I was experiencing. But what good did it do me? It may have done me some harm: watching breaking news of traumatic events can actually be harmful to viewers, as one Twitterer pointed out. And what good does it do us as a society? There’s an ideology that says any additional information is good, and that if we just give people more information they’ll be able to better understand the world on their own, untouched by any mediating force. But I’m not sure how I’m any better off knowing a bunch of wrong things that don’t make any sense together.
Certainly the FBI didn’t seem any better off for all of the internet’s sleuthing. But the internet wanted us to think it was. The internet is always trying to justify itself, always trying to convince itself that it’s more worthwhile than what’s come before. This is natural, but has been exacerbated all out of proportion by the internet’s prominence in society and the way we talk about it — as a revolutionary technology, as a disruptive force changing whole realms of human activity forever. The people who make the rules of the digital realm are a very particular group of people with a very particular worldview. They’re very good at making computer networks and the tools to be used on those networks, but they’d like us to think they’re experts at far more than that: journalism, music distribution, economics, politics, etc. They’ve become powerful through these tools but would like to spread their power to other realms, and are using the prominence granted them by the internet to advocate for these essentially ancillary causes. The internet chest-puffing that accompanies any major news event covered partially online is fundamentally a power play for people good at making and using digital tools to convince us that they’re good at lots of other things, too.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what the point is of following breaking news before any solid story emerges. (Even as I do so now, but then again I also have been known to buy and eat substantial portions of a layer cake by myself.) Being exposed to all those pieces of information that turned out to be untrue was far less useful, ultimately, than if I’d just waited until the whole story was out and found out about it in toto. News used to take days to reach the West Coast, and the West Coast seemed to do just fine living on this time delay. As fun as it can be to feel like we’re in some sort of control by getting news instantly, it is very much an illusion. We are still here in our homes, distant from the tragedy, unable to do anything about the horrors unfolding as we watch, no matter how much we would like to. Knowing about a death first does not allow us to prevent the death from occurring. Information will not keep us safe from the random horrors that populate our modern world.