There’s a fine line, apparently, between citizen journalism and “tragi-porn.” If you believe TechCruch’s Paul Carr, the two might as well be the same thing. Carr made waves this weekend with a harsh critique of citizen journalism and the Fort Hood shootings—and his claim that some of the errors that made their way into the initial coverage of the shootings can be traced to Tearah Moore: the soldier just returned from a tour in Iraq who, during Fort Hood’s physical and informational lockdown in the aftermath of the shootings, tweeted updates from inside the hospital where the wounded were being treated. Carr re-posts some of Moore’s posts:
[T]hey just brought a CART full of boxes w/transplant parts in them. Not good not good. #fthood
Ok we just saw a soldier on a stretcher w/2 armed guards walking by He didnt look like he was in great condition.
Maj Malik A Hassan. He shouldn’t have died. He should be in the worst suffering of his life. It’s too fair for him to just die. Bastard!
A FUCKING MAJOR? Are you kidding me? A MAJ! For those of ut hat don’t know, Army MAJ have pretty serious rank. Dick
Someone just started shooting in Commanche 4 which is on post housing. What are these people thinking?!?
The poor guy that got shot in the balls http://twitpic.com/oejh5
In Moore’s defense—as the Toronto Globe & Mail’s Mathew Ingram points out—she probably got the erroneous information about Hasan’s death (“he shouldn’t have died”) the same way the rest of us did: from cable news reporting sourced by military officials. But the propriety of her tweets was also questionable—not merely in terms of their rhetoric (“It’s too fair for him to just die. Bastard!”), but also in terms of the information included in them (the TwitPic of “the poor guy that got shot in the balls”).
In this, Carr sees an appalling disregard for privacy and general decency; sharing, for him, is not an act of sympathy—of self-extension—but rather one of selfishness: “Her behaviour had nothing to do with getting the word out; it wasn’t about preventing harm to others, but rather a simple case of – as I said two weeks ago – ‘look at me looking at this.’” Thus Moore’s tweets, Carr declares, are indicative of the general communicative threat posed by the digital world—which allows for sharing as never before in human history—and the many new creatures it has spawned. And citizen journalism, therefore, in Carr’s if-it-looks-like-a-duck-and-quacks-like-a-duck-then-it’s-probably-a-dinosaur rendering, is at odds with Our Very Humanity.
Like Lord of the Flies, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, as long as we’re all losing our perspective at the same time – which, as a generation growing up with social media we are – then we don’t realise that our humanity is leaking away until its too late.
It’s hard to know whether such a broad-brush argument—with its treatment of questionably appropriate tweets as Collective Commentary on the State of Human Communication—is fully earnest (“human decency” does, after all, make an appearance) or whether it is rooted, at least in part, in irony or link-baitery or orneriness (Carr’s Twitter bio: “Writer, hideously successful failure, kind of a dick”). Nor, in the it-is-what-it-is sense, does that really matter. Carr’s piece—and this is its chief failing as well as its chief salvation—is revealingly provocative. Not in the sense ostensibly intended—as a sweeping takedown of citizen journalism (“I’d probably feel slightly smug, if I didn’t feel so sick”)—but rather as an inquiry into “citizen journalism,” that oft-discussed yet nebulously defined institution.
And specifically: into the culture of citizen journalism. The question tugging at the corners of Carr’s taut little invective is whether Moore’s Twittering was appropriate in the first place—and whether, more broadly, social media are increasing our capacity to relate to each other…or, indeed, impeding it. The new capability we have to record every aspect of our lives—and others’—fosters, Carr suggests, a blanket impulse toward voyeurism. We’d rather record, he suggests, than participate. This is an impulse, Carr claims, that we’ve seen not only at Fort Hood, but also in Iran (he points to the “citizen journalist” who, on a cell-phone camera, created the video that recorded the life bleeding out of Neda Agha Soltan) and in countless other instances where citizen journalism has been praised for its ability to get on-the-ground reporting out to the world.