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Filling the silence

Instagram screen grab

Friday was a monumentally depressing day, the kind of day that stays with you for a while. Twenty-seven people dead in Connecticut. As a new week rolled around, those of us on a steady diet of social media saw something weird happen. People drifted away from the Newtown shooting and erupted in a rage against… Instagram.

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The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary left us with 20 fewer young Americans and some painful conversations. How could America fail to protect a room full of children from a madman? Again?

This story mattered so much that people turned to social media to share whatever language they were comfortable with. Some people (notably the NRA) shut the hell up. Other people posted very emotional pictures, prayers, and religious messages. Quite a few praised teachers and first responders. Others debated what to do about guns and our mental health apparatus. I think many people lacked the energy to talk about politics with so much grief in their hearts. It wasn’t fun or pretty. Some of the conversations were annoying. But it was real, and it showed social media fulfilling its role as a public square.

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By comparison in importance, Instagram’s latest adventure ranks somewhere between a rat’s ass and a flying fuck.

And yet, from Monday to Tuesday, the folks I follow on Twitter and Facebook (largely U.S.-based media and photo people and humorists) rained hate down on Instagram with a fervor usually reserved for losing sports teams. Even TIME magazine, which used to publish stirring black-and-white photo essays by James Nachtwey, yesterday dedicated a 24-page slide show to photographers complaining about Instagram. Concerned photojournalism in action.

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It’s true, Instagram made a bad mistake. They botched a terms of service update, rolling out some customer-hostile legal language. (Come on Instagram. Does anyone other than your lawyer read your TOS? Didn’t you learn from TwitPic and Pinterest and, oh yeah, Facebook?) Instagram eventually responded and tried to assure users that the sinister intentions people were reading in the TOS update were not real dangers.

This happens so often that we should be able to deal with it like adults. Some tech blog should have handed Instagram a penalty card and they should have fixed it in a few days. No big deal.

Instead, we got mass hysteria. That’s interesting.

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Technically, legally, the Instagram haters were right. Sensibly, emotionally, it was a huge overreaction. Enthusiastic Instagram users actually seemed to go out of their way to feel pain, to crave the visceral emotion of a personal attack. To suffer. To say, something dear to me is in danger, and I need to fight for what’s right.

I think there’s an explanation: We all just spent four days hearing stories of little children being mowed down with an assault rifle.

The sensible thing to do would be to sit down and be quiet, and reflect on what happened. But social media offers no rewards for silence or waiting. The mix of those two pressures—the stress of relentless, disturbing news and the pressure to fill dead air—is having some weird results. Maybe we need more time to get good at this.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Social Media, Technology

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