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Responses to Tragedy

March 27th, 2012 No comments

There’s been a lot of talk about Trayvon Martin’s murder and social media.[1]

It shouldn’t be surprising that there is a spike in social media conversations surrounding events that resonate with the public – we talk about them in real life, so it makes sense that we’ll talk about it on the internet.

At Attention, we’ve noticed that most events that trigger a substantial social media response follow the shark fin pattern. They spike out of nowhere and then gradually decrease (the interesting part is figuring out what causes the spike and if the rates of change can be generalized across cases). It’s a visual representation of the human attention span – everyone talks about something for a day or two and then we gradually move on to something else.

It happens all the time: Komen v. Planned Parenthood, Kony 2012, Occupy Wall Street, Goldman Sach’s resignation letter, Troy Davis…

I don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking in the fact that social media hyper-drives the focus around significant moments like these – that’s the point of a connected network with frictionless sharing. It’s a neat phenomenon, but it’s expected.

I think it would be more interesting to see if there is a lift in the conversation volume surrounding the general topic after one of these events (e.g., did social media conversations about the death penalty see a sustained volume increase after the Troy Davis execution?). It would also be interesting to find out why this story lay dormant for over a month before gaining national attention – this post has some answers (took time for facts to come out, etc.).

There are a few things about the social media reaction to Travyon Martin’s death that I do find interesting.

Social media as a release valve. We’ve seen an immense outpouring of grief, support, outrage, ignorance, and solidarity via social media, especially Twitter. Those emotions would still exist (although to a lesser extent, because less people would know about the case) absent social media, but where would they be funneled toward? In this respect, I think that Twitter and other social media outlets act as a pressure release valve. Would the existence of social media have diminished the likelihood of riots after the Rodney King trial? Who knows – contemporary experience says probably not (see: London Riots (read this Wired piece), Arab Spring, Occupy – all instances where there was significant social media activity that facilitated offline action) – but I do think that social media does provide some relief.[2]

Speaking out. Social media influence is a topic that we constantly discuss. Without looking at data, I’m not sure who the influencers are in this case – I’ve been particularly drawn to @Toure, @Baratunde, and @bomani_jones. Influencers are usually defined as people that move the needle and spur conversation. I’m more interested in the fact that two unlikely people could become influencers (in the real sense of the word) out of this tragedy.

The first is Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who is on Twitter as of today with already 50,000 followers. Ideally I’d like to see her use this platform to get a Trayvon’s law passed – either revising the Stand Your Ground law in Florida or doing something about concealed weapons and gun control. Through Twitter she has a direct platform to some very important people and could continuously press for broader systemic change. It could be a real platform.

The second, oddly enough, is LeBron James. Last week, Lebron organized his Miami Heat teammates and took a picture of them wearing hoodies. This was both a show of solidarity for black youth unfairly targeted and a way to stand up to idiots like Geraldo Riviera. A simple picture tweeted with a few simple hashtags, but it spoke volumes. I don’t know what it was that got me about this picture. I think it was the fact that someone so big was standing up in his own way for someone so small. And that he did it in such an understated way. It made me happy to see that today’s athletes (even one who is focused on being a “global brand”) are emboldened by our media options to step up and do something selfless without overtly calling attention to himself. LeBron was just one of the thousands of people showing solidarity in the Twitter stream.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Like most people, I’m outraged by the fact that George Zimmerman hasn’t been charged yet. Obviously, it’s impossible to know all the facts, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a case of self-defense, so the Stand Your Ground law shouldn’t apply. Add in the fact that Trayvon was unarmed, had no history of violence, Zimmerman seemed to be paranoid, overzealous, and distrustful of African-Americans and the picture becomes clearer. Why a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman is allowed to carry a concealed weapon is beyond me. As much as this is a story about racism, it’s also a story about gun control. No reason for this man to have a gun.
  2. I realize that this is a loaded paragraph, but unpacking it is a completely separate post.