The Week of Commenting Dangerously.

The last week has been what you would call the opposite of a slow news week. It started off last Friday when a delusional terrorist (is there any other kind?) decided to take the lives of 68 innocent people in Oslo. The following day Amy Winehouse was found dead in her apartment at the age of 27. Then, during the week, a beloved Lebanese landmark was supposedly threatened with destruction, and a Lebanese singer was briefly thrown in jail for a song he recorded three years ago.

What do these events have in common? Not much on the face of it. I guess, in a way, they show various aspects of the tragedy of the human condition. Heavy stuff. But on a far simpler level, all these events took over my Facebook news feed over the last few days, and quite rightly so. Where LOLcats, Justin Bieber jokes and wedding photos once reigned supreme, people were now discussing terrorism and addiction.

However, I have some observations I’d like to share. I can almost hear your sigh of exasperation seeping through the screen, but bear with me.

Let’s take the first two events. The day the bombing and subsequent mass-shooting took place in Oslo, I could hardly believe what I was reading. I had to reread the story a few times before it sunk in. This was human atrocity at its basest level. I sent out rather pointless messages to my Norwegian friends, which were more of a sign of shared humanity than anything else. But at this point my news feed remained rather barren. Then, the next day, Amy Winehouse passed away. And suddenly my mini feed was packed full of condolences and heartfelt agony. And this got me rather angry.

A day after no one had reacted to one of the worst terrorist attacks in years, everyone suddenly seemed to be bereft over a celebrity who had been on a path to self-destruction for years. So I posted a status to that effect, wishing for some perspective on the scope of human tragedy. And the comments started pouring in. People angry that I was comparing tragedies that weren’t comparable.

They might not have been comparable as tragedies, but they were comparable on Facebook as entities of concern. I obviously can’t quantify human suffering, but I can quantify responses to it. And the disproportionate amount of people who cared more about Winehouse than about Norway felt rather grotesque.

It seemed to completely exemplify our obsession with celebrity over the past decade. Most of the comments were along the lines of “Amy touched me with her music, and I knew more about her, so it affected me more”. Well I’m sorry, but the day you identify more with a multi-millionaire drug addict than with innocent teenage bystanders, there’s something wrong with the world.

After about 60 comments on that status, I thought I was done arguing on Facebook for the week. Then came the news, through Lebanese NGO Save Beirut Heritage, that the beloved Egg in the Downtown area was to be demolished in a matter of days. When I read that, I was sceptical for two reasons.

First of all, I attended a writing workshop last week sponsored by Solidere, and got to meet with their head of Urban Development. I asked him all the questions I thought would make me sound concerned and lefty in front of the group. “Why aren’t there any green spaces?”, “Why have you made the city centre a soulless, semi-public place designed for the elites and guarded by an army of private security firms?” and “What is going to happen to landmarks like the Egg?”. I was assured that the Egg, whose real name is the City Centre, would stay where it was and that it would become part of a new structure. My second reason for being dubious, was the last big Save Beirut Heritage campaign that I remember, about Ahwet el Ezezz. We were told that this beloved Gemmayze hangout would be turned into a Bank Audi. This brought together a lot of outraged people at the time, but at the end of the day its just being replaced by another café and the whole building just got a lick of paint.

The tone of voice of the update on the Save Beirut Heritage Facebook group sounded alarmist and attention grabbing. And throughout the course of the day it turned out that no imminent plans for destruction were scheduled at all. I spent the day arguing with the organizers on their page, telling them that crying wolf and attention-seeking harms their cause tremendously. I am no activist, but I don’t claim to be. If you’re positioning yourself of the saviour of our city’s Heritage, take it seriously. Don’t form infantile campaigns to “chain yourselves” to buildings two days before you think they’re going to be demolished. Create awareness campaigns throughout the year; make sure the population at large knows why these buildings are important, why collective architectural memory serves a purpose. Don’t just show up at the last minute with a load of self-righteous bourgeois bohemian indignation, and then disappear again until the next alleged wrecking ball rears its ugly head.

Which brings me to that last event that took over my Facebook feed, the arrest of musician Zeid Hamdan on charges of defamation for his song General Soleiman. The social media sphere went crazy, and rightly so. The arbitrary detention of an artist on a flimsy charge can only be a source of worry for the population at large. I don’t know the details of the case, so I won’t comment further, but I will comment on the squandering of human capital. In the hours after his arrest, Facebook pages sprung up to get him released and people changed their profile pictures in support of the cause. I thought the profile pictures depicting him as a fallen martyr were a tad overzealous, especially considering he had been released by the time most people had joined the page and put up the pictures. But the real tragedy is that these thousands of people who clamoured in that moment of need, will disappear today and tomorrow. They will forget about the threat to our liberty here at home and on idyllic islands off the coast of Oslo. That is the real tragedy.

While it is a perfectly acceptable exercise to berate each other on Facebook and flex our intellectual/rhetorical muscles, it doesn’t do much. I remember a Facebook event for a Save Beirut Heritage march having hundreds and hundreds of attendees online, but when I actually showed up there were about 50 of us. Indignation is fine. One-off indignation is pretty pointless. Misplaced indignation is useless. If we can direct and sustain our indignation, then we’ll get somewhere.

As things stand, we have a lunatic terrorist bent on ridding Europe of immigrants, we have a talented artist who died far too young and far too lost, we have a complete lack of understanding of where our heritage is going and we still lock up musicians in 2011. It’s been a busy week for Facebook, and a sad week for humanity.

17 Responses to “The Week of Commenting Dangerously.”

  1. Mich
    July 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Very well put. Brilliant! :-)

  2. Maissam
    July 28, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    While I agree that political activism more often than not is limited to an online status update, or ‘liking’ a facebook group and that the people in the moment of need will overzealous express their feelings towards it and then disappear, I believe that in such a corrupted, indifferent political structure (or lack of) as the one we are in, the youth lacks knowledge or access to more appropriate channels for expressing their anger towards such event or other. I personally remain equally skeptical towards the endless series of marches that are being organized and that lack a clear plan that would lead to change. I believe that both actions contribute to raising awareness among young people, some of which may eventually be part of the policy making process in this country.

  3. TFS
    July 28, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Great article! As much as I agree with your post, and I strongly do, I’ll play the devil’s advocate for a few lines here.

    Let’s say the roles were reversed (and they have been in the past) and we (Lebanon) were on the wrong end of a bombardment killing hundreds of innocent civilians, would our European counterparts post messages of support or would they rather post a message of “love” or “RIP” or whatever message which demonstrates that they’re aware of a celebrity passing away.

    There will be some who would show support to those who’ve passed away following a human tragedy for sure. But I’m pretty sure that the majority of people, unfortunately, in Europe, Lebanon or wherever in the world, would rather post about a celebrity passing away than a mass human tragedy. Disgusting, perhaps, but it’s not surprising.

    The question could be asked about why doesn’t anyone (myself included) post messages of support for those, that we’re fully aware of, who pass away on a daily basis in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and so on? Or is that not worthy because it happens on such a regular basis that it’s become a standard piece of news?

    Either way, the media has a great role in portraying and influencing what seems more worthy of our pity, remorse and sadness than anything else. In my opinion, because of the media, a tragedy in Europe will always be deemed more worthy than one elsewhere.

    I’m no preacher about what’s right or wrong, as there’s no way of comparing tragedies or these recent situations, but I do know that there’s something very disturbing about the way things have unfolded this past week – and social media was the major tool used to unfold its publicity this time around.

    P.S: I’m still waiting for us to meet about the site! :)

  4. Clocus
    July 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    Good writing as always. I see what you mean about the Oslo/Amy Winehouse thing. It made me start thinking about the reasons behind it.

    I, for one, barely knew about Amy Winehouse. I probably know her songs and I’ve definitely heard her about her. But I really never cared about her. When she died I immediately sent a text to a friend of mine that read something like “OMG did you hear blah blah blah”. Why did I do that? Because it’s gossip, it’s a scoop, it’s one of those events that qualify for a text message that starts with “OMG”. It’s another idol on the creepy 27 year-old rock star death list.

    When the Oslo terrorist attacked was unfolding, I was glued to my twitter screen. I read a million articles about it the following few days. It was horrifying. But I didn’t send any texts to friends. And I didn’t put anything on my facebook wall (mind you, I didn’t for winehouse either).

    So I guess, for me, facebook is a happy, funny, witty place. Places where you rant or post cool songs, share photos and interesting articles. Not a place to mourn. Not a place I would run to to share my immense chock and sadness. (I would, however, share some political commentary about the events) So, yeah, people rushed to mourn winehouse on their facebook walls. But I don’t think that rules out the fact that a huge number of friends were privately still grieving in solidarity with Norway.

    So maybe this all just a reflection on what sort of place facebook is. What people choose to post on their wall. What type of people are posting things. Maybe even who our hundreds of friends are.

    So bottom line, maybe humanity isn’t so bad after all.

  5. Olga
    July 28, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    ……famine in Somalia, anyone?

    It seems to me that no matter what anyone says, it is the news that hits closest to home that people choose to comment on, twitter, facebook and blog about. “Closest to home” can, by definition, differ depending on the commentator, twitterer, facebooker or blogger. Hence the difference in coverage.

  6. Olga
    July 28, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    …and I should have said – please do not take my comment to mean that some tragedies are not so significant that they affect everyone globally, deeply and substantially. Those sorts of tragedies, however, usually shock, horrify and enthrall people to such an extent that they are too serious for some people, overcome with emotion, to post an “OMG” message on facebook about.

  7. mounir
    July 28, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

    brilliant post. bravo!

  8. Life with Subtitles
    July 29, 2011 at 12:35 am #

    Brilliant. The problem with facebook activism is that pressing the “I’m attending” or “like” button, or even changing a profile picture, often gives people the self-satisfaction they need to tell themselves that they’ve “done something about it”.

    Somehow we got it in our minds that change comes through a big enough number of Likes, which there are actually lots of people in the background pulling their resources together to achieve that same goal. You read everywhere things like “Zeid was released after social media campaigns reached x number of likes”. What this effectively measures is how far the message has been spread, how successful the “one-off awareness campaign” was, but fails to capture the actual behind the scenes work. A sad by-product of this is that people start developing this idea of “Like and sit on your ass” kind of activism, which will lead us absolutely nowhere.

  9. Ronald
    July 29, 2011 at 12:43 am #

    Toucher!

  10. Leb-Thoughts
    July 29, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    Another interesting and well-written article (I thought one more compliment wouldn’t hurt)…

    My comment/ question however is pointed toward the facebooks of the world. What’s their purpose?! Checking the pics that one’s friends post or commenting on a status such as “I’m bored/ hungry / going out etc…”. So I don’t really expect people whom spend a lot of time on facebook and twitter and the likes to be that active on the ground. I guess they are more comfortable with “digital” support. And there are plenty of areas where local can significantly contribute such as culture, education, environment, health care, to name a few!

    We should find a way to better our country… and I believe it starts with people we point out to issues and problems and people we correctively act upon them. We should have more of both!

    Cheers dude.. :)

  11. Nasri Atallah
    August 2, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    Mich
    Thank you ☺

    Maissam
    True. Facebook becomes a kind of surrogate for activism in a society where civil society is stifled. I say stifled, because I don’t think civil society is purely a profliferation of NGOs (which we have), it is a widespread involvement and an ability to be actors in the system.

    TFS
    I agree, the media does play a huge role in deciding what is important and what’s not. And the media is made up of businesses that are accountable to shareholders, so they have to make money, and what sells is celebrity. And sensationalism, rather than informed social commentary. It’s a sad situation.
    (and sorry, these two weeks have been nuts. This week?)

    Clocus
    Thanks☺
    But I don’t agree that Facebook is something purely frivolous. I think that’s probably what it started as. But over the years it has evolved into an area that replicates our real life concerns. We interact with the brands we consume, with the causes we care about and so on. I’m pretty much the same online that I am offline, sometimes serious, sometimes completely idiotic. So I think what happens on Facebook is a pretty accurate indicator of what’s happening offline.

    Olga
    Cultural and geographic proximity obviously impact what people think is newsworthy. But there are some tragedies that are universal, I agree completely with you.

    mounir
    Thank you!

  12. Nasri Atallah
    August 2, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Life with Subtitles
    Slacktivism is a pretty big problem, and NGOs/charities worldwide are facing the challenge of converting awareness into action/numbers. I mean, exposure and awareness can never be a bad thing, and maybe a lot of these people participating in Facebook campaigns would have remained completely silent years ago, so it’s not all bad. Then again, it’s the responsibility of the real activists and the people in charge of communicating the message to make sure people get off their asses.

    Ronald

    Leb-Thoughts
    Thanks. But like I was telling Clocus, I think the social network serves a real purpose. It is no longer separated from our offline life, they go hand in hand. So it should reflect our desires and fears and so on.

  13. Eva
    August 3, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Totally agree w/ your last point. Indignez-vous, but not just on Facebook. Reminds me of a friend’s status message last week: “My computer is busted. Had to go back to living the real life without internet.”

  14. Dante
    August 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    In my point of view it’s a nonsense article.

    Even if you’re saying you’re not, you built all your thinking on the highly wrong assertion “bigger dramas should make bigger impact on FB”
    This is non-sense. Don’t know for you but 100% of people with a minimum of respect don’t use this vanity tool to communicate when it comes to death of related, of friends, or non sense drama death of unknown civilians.

    Doing the right thing is about doing what indirect victims want, not about showing on futile social network.
    Norway and Norwegian asked for quiet and calm to think about it and repair their souls, let it to them, instead of trying to make a facebook buzz -totally useless- or to improve your blog traffic and/or your image among your readers by doing basic populism.

  15. Eric
    August 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Nice article. I think the difference is that people feel like they know celebrities personally. They know their name, what they look like, they read about their life in all the gossip mags and such. There is no such connection to the people in Norway.

    People feel more grief with someone who they know or someone who is identifiable. A nondescript “group of people” do not seem to elicit the same response.

  16. Omar
    August 21, 2011 at 3:37 am #

    I am afraid I disagree with you this time. People tend to care more about people they know than strangers. The more you know a person the harder the news of the passing away is. If people were given the choice between one friend or loved one dying or the option of 100′s of strangers dying somewhere else in the world, most would choose their loved ones over the many more strangers dying. People form harder attachments to other people by knowing them more, it’s simple.To many Amy Winehouse is someone they knew well, more than any of the murdered Norwegians, through knowing her as the talented musician who bought back jazz ,for her distinctive cockney accent, eyeliner or alcohol/ drug related stories , the death of the 26 year old celebrity came as a shock to many of us. Yes the 60+ people dead in Norway is a tragic story but to most of us 60+ strangers dead is just another statistic added to the 1000′s of strangers being murdered everyday in cold blood. People are being tortured and murdered by 100′s in cold blood in neighboring Syria, I don’t see you mentioning them? I don’t really expect you to, but you also shouldn’t expect other people to mention the the murdered Norwegians over a celebrity they liked, for the sole reason of their higher figures.

  17. Les
    March 6, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    “the day you identify more with a multi-millionaire drug addict than with innocent teenage bystanders, there’s something wrong with the world.” – quite agree with you there!

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