People in difficult situations have always relied on dark humour to get them through, police, doctors, solders are well known for it. Private grief or impotent horror at public events produces jokes or thoughts that are not always palatable. It was always thus, I’m sure you can remember school-yard jokes about major disasters, I’m sure that psychologists could point to research about why we do it and why it helps.
Last Friday night Twitter, the only special media form I use often enough to have been checking on a weekend evening, was alive with comment on the Raoul Moat case and the rolling TV news coverage of it. Rolling news, particularly the Sky version, is an easy and oft used target amongst the (mostly liberal, mostly educated, mostly cynical) people that I come into contact with there. The repetitive nature of 24 hour news, the lack of actual happenings — it’s easy meat for the sort of “social satire” that Twitter does around major news events.
A difficult, horrific and scary, situation was made mundane by the coverage. That’s what rolling TV news does.
And then something really odd happened. Paul Gascoigne turned up.
It was sad, Gazza has had well publicised mental health and addiction problems for some years – but there is no denying that the event provided all the essential ingredients for comedy: juxtaposition, recognition, shared nervousness, mundanity (in his shopping list of things brought, and in his use of unimaginative nicknames).
It would be, and I’m sure will and should remain, unthinkable for mainstream comedians to do Gazza/Moat material — but in private most people would have been comfortable to share in the darkly comic aspects of the story. And laugh, because there’s nothing else you can possibly do in that moment to change anything.
Here lies the collision we’re about to see (or are seeing) between that with the media can show as acceptable reaction and what we now know about the actual reaction of huge numbers of people. We may have in the past heard ‘sick’ jokes at work or in the pub, in recent years my SMS inbox has filled with them from those a generation above me (and it has too this week) but it’s only now that the public sphere has communication tools that allow this to happen in ‘public’.
Cue media (and political, in politics’s role as a branch of media) outrage.
So we have a problem — there seems that there is no way that the media or those courting it for political purposes can take anything but the outraged position. If anyone in that sphere were to step out of line then they would swiftly become the story, and they have power, influence, and money to lose.
We saw this in the General Election campaign, potential candidates were hounded out after using the social web to express opinions that everyone would have expected them to hold in private. Maybe they should have known better (in fact, they of all people — in the game where leaping on signs of unconformity is to conform — should know most of all), but it’s a regimented and dull World we’re being forced to live in, one where no-one can make a mistake however small.
Imagine if Princess Diana died again tomorrow, how far would the media’s reaction (which would no doubt be the same as it was them) be from the public (or at least public space online) reaction? If I’ve read one think piece, years later, about how the “public outpouring of grief” wasn’t shared by anywhere near to all of the public I’ve read hundreds. Now people might well be brave enough to say so.
What happens in online social interaction isn’t, for most, a truly public space — it may be open to all but it is intended to be read by those who are connected to them. Hence we get a false dichotomy; all utterances on the social web are public, but some are more public than others. We have to move to a way where all media, social or otherwise can cope with that.