The scene in San Bernardino.



Snapchat Is Breaking News & People Freaked Out: But Why?

During the shooting in San Bernardino, many of us were glued to our smartphones for updates. Through Facebook, Twitter, and –for many, for the first time–Snapchat, we watched the tragic events unfold through the lens of a tiny screen we can carry around in our pocket. But as many users logged into Snapchat, they were unprepared for the “California Shooting” moment to be squished under the “Live” heading–right in-between “Holidays in NYC” and “Copa do Brasil.”

Snapchat’s shift from hard news to soft news sparked some outrage across social media platforms. Many complained that it was “inappropriate” for the company to feature such a tragic story where they generally promote things such as music festivals and sporting events. It seems as though the majority of these people have never used a television: A device which also features hard news and soft news on different “channels” for your viewing pleasure.

Ironically, all the teens who took to Twitter seem to be spouting a very Neil Postman-esque concern. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, his anti-television news book, Postman wrote that “when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.” He wasn’t totally off. Television news does have some of the most stringent ethical guidelines in media–other than Fox News, presumably. The 24 hour news-cycle has lead to unobjective news from varying sources, but the same could be argued of all forms of journalism. Television shows, movies, and news broadcasts have coexisted peacefully since the ’50s, so why the sudden change of heart once we can get live updates on Snapchat?

In essence, people have always been terrified of the power of new media.

Way back in Ancient Greece, Socrates was afraid of how writing would affect the young people of his time. In his dialogue Phaedrus, he tells a story about Ancient Egyptians debating the institution of writing. In it, he makes the argument that those who use writing “will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

02 Dec 2015, San Bernardino, California, USA --- Dec. 2, 2015 - San Bernardino, California, U.S - Police respond to the scene of an active shooting at Inland Regional Center where at least 14 people were killed and 17 wounded . Three shooters went on a shooting rampage with rifles wearing ski masks and vests. A man and a woman connected to the shooting were killed in a firefight with police officers after a car chase. (Credit Image: © Steven K. Doi via ZUMA Wire) --- Image by © Steven K. Doi/ZUMA Press/Corbis
The San Bernardino shooting updates unrolled on Snapchat.

When the printing press was invented, many feared what the effects of democratizing the written word would be. In the 1500’s, Swedish scientist Conrad Gessner was arguing that the flood of information from the printing press would be “confusing and harmful” to the general public.

The fear of–and backlash against–new media platforms seems to be an inevitable part of society’s evolution. When a new medium of information emerges, people’s natural reaction is to fear it. We feared writing, we feared the printing press, and now we fear Snapchat. A worldwide, overwhelming concern is the potentially dark consequences of engaging with information in new ways–Black Mirror hits way too close to home.

But, historically, we’ve always gotten over it. The new types of media turn into old types of media. And, eventually we barely even notice that every bar has a television and the vast majority of people know how to read. Did writing change how our society functions and how people think? Of course. People didn’t have to memorize speeches or stories from years ago. But, fearing changes in media has always been–and always will be–fearing the inevitable.

The Snapchat story on San Bernardino.

We live in an age where Buzzfeed breaks news, Twitter is a journalistic source, and most people learn about politics through Facebook. The place most people hear about things first is now social media, from Whitney Houston’s death being broken on Twitter to the accidental live-tweet of the Osama Bin Laden raid. It’s now crucial for a social networking company to realize that their platform can be used to inform large numbers of people. In the wake of acts of terrorism in Paris in November, Facebook activated its new Safety Check function, on which people can mark themselves as okay and alert friends and loved ones.

Snapchat’s Live Stories can draw between 10 and 20 million views, and the app has an active user base of over 100 million viewers. Wouldn’t we, as a society, prefer for our younger generation to be getting news from these platforms instead of not at all? Way back in 2006, Twitter was basically used to send mass texts, but now it’s an essential tool in how journalists handle events as Ferguson and demonstrations by activists. More often than not, we can figure out how to use once-demonized technology for a social or political impact.

Most of our media platforms–everything from written text to video games–are used for varied objectives. Expecting media to either be only serious or only light-hearted isn’t a way to use the platforms we have to their full potential.

Photos via Snapchat and LA Times. 

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