/ 19 December 2013

Social media: Smile. Snap. Send. Repeat

Thousands of people visited Nelson Mandela's Houghton home after the announcement of his death.
Thousands of people visited Nelson Mandela's Houghton home after the announcement of his death.

The morning after Nelson Mandela died, around 10am, I went to his house in Houghton. I stayed for three hours, just hanging around, paying respects, getting a sense of what the mood was like.

A shrine of candles and flowers had begun to rise on a street corner. Some hundred bouquets were already there when I showed up; and hundreds more people arrived to lay down new flowers.

What surprised me, though, is that, save for one wizened old man dressed in a suit, hat and patent-leather shoes who left a carnation, not a single person who left flowers for Madiba did so without taking a selfie in front of the flowers. Young people, old people, everybody took grinning photos of themselves in front of the shrine.

It felt kind of weird, as though we were all tourists posing in front of the Big Hole, not mourners.

"I want video. I want Instagram. I want everything!" one woman instructed her iPhone-wielding ­husband as she bent backwards over the pile of flowers to get the right background.

The smiling selfie Barack Obama, David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped at Mandela's December 10 memorial at FNB Stadium unleashed a torrent of righteous indignation.

The New York Times tsk-tsked that he "did not allow himself an uninterrupted time of reverie" appropriate to the event; even less generously, the New York Post suggested he had gone "into sugar shock over a Danish pastry" and "lost … his dignity".

But have we behaved any differently?

Moulding experience
During Mandela's 10 days of mourning, my roommate and I couldn't get over how much social media was moulding our experience of the time after his death. There were the selfies at the Houghton house, but also the way the demands of Twitter, in particular, changed how we processed the news.

As others have pointed out, Mandela's death wasn't actually really "news", despite the big media houses' all-hands-on-deck contingency plans that engaged as many reporters as you would need to cover an Islamist coup overthrowing the United States government.

Mandela had been grievously ill for a long time. His life span, as Pallo Jordan put it, was already "much longer than normal".

His death was a date that was completely expected and thus an occasion more like, say, an anniversary of a great event, calling for deep and quiet reflection.

But Twitter's insatiable appetite for breaking news and, more broadly, a web news cycle that turns over incredibly rapidly and keeps editors desperately on the lookout for a juicy, click-worthy new headline didn't allow for this.

It forced us to treat Mandela's death like a breaking news event, like a coup.

All the little mini events that unfolded around it assumed an outsized importance: the booing of Jacob Zuma, the long lines to exit FNB Stadium after the memorial ("This is going to be a huge story for us this afternoon," I heard an anchor breathlessly announce on the radio), the repeated snubbing of Desmond Tutu and, of course, the many revelations about the "fake" interpreter.

He so captured our attention in part because he, much more than Mandela, about whom so much is already known, finally partially satisfied our hunger for OMG-worthy announcements.

I experienced this hunger on my Twitter feed.

Over the course of the 10 days of mourning for Mandela, I tweeted various thoughts and links, but nothing got more retweets than "Mandela sign-language interpreter accused of murder".

The renowned psychologist of technology, Sherry Turkle, has written evocatively about the paradoxical way social media can actually bring about a sense of disengagement, enmeshed as we supposedly are in so many "networks".

The phone is a constant source of and, perhaps more damagingly, demander of new revelations – Instagram wants a photo, Twitter wants a tweet – and it constantly disrupts sustained experience.

Social media can "make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because, emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything", Turkle wrote recently in the New York Times.

"I talk to young people about etiquette when they go out to dinner, and they explain to me that when in a group of, say, seven, they make sure that at least three people are 'heads up' in the 'talking' conversation at any one time … In these settings, the most commonly heard phrase is 'Wait, what?' as one person and then another drops back into the conversation and tries to catch up. All of this has become the new normal."

Interestingly, one of another new normal is selfies at funerals, which became the subject of one of 2013’s most viral Tumblrs, selfiesatfunerals.tumblr.com.

Positive contributions
Of course, social media made some positive contributions to the journalism around Mandela's death.

In the Twitter conversations that unfolded during the funeral, all kinds of people were able to join the fray with reporters, widening the discussion.

But I heard again and again from an equally wide range of people that they felt strangely empty during the mourning period – flat, uninspired, unable to connect with what they had hoped would be deeper, more sustained emotions.

Some connected this with the heavily reported snafus such as the boring memorial speeches or the screw-up with the interpreter. But what if the core problem wasn’t the snafus but how ceaselessly we engaged with them?