Are you the sort of person who can't resist slowing down at an accident because you feel compelled to look? I confess I'm ambivalent about accident scenes. A part of me wants to turn away, to give those involved some semblance of privacy in a shockingly public moment. It seems indecent to participate in the line of strangers crawling past, faces glued to windows, mouths open, either in shock or commenting on the misfortune. Another part of me, though, wants to look. I'm curious; I want to see what all the commotion is about, to see how bad it is. Inevitably, I will spend the briefest of moments within that tableau, wondering what I would have done or how I would have reacted if whatever happened, happened to me. I try not to but, at times, I confess to being a gawker.
Interestingly, one of the synonyms for gawk is goggle, which sounds very much like google, which brings me to the Internet. Because of the volume of online traffic, the cyber-equivalent of gawking has become googling-gone-viral. Instead of staring wide-eyed from our cars, we now stare wide-eyed at Facebook or Yahoo, watching triumph or tragedy played out in a real-time photo or two-minute video. The Internet, as a digital superhighway, certainly has its share of accidents and train wrecks, of misery and misfortune to google and gawk at. Luckily, it also has some inspiring visual moments.
I've written in the past about some of these viral vignettes -- the poignancy of a toddler breaking down into tears upon realizing her darling baby brother won't stay young forever, won't stay alive forever. Rarely do you witness a young child internalizing the concept of death. I found the video compelling. Or, the 12-second video on TMZ of Invisible Children co-founder, Jason Russell. Rarely do you witness a mental breakdown in progress. I found the video compelling.
What goes viral, I think, says a great deal about who we are as individuals and who we are collectively. If I'm not careful, I can become frustrated that we seem to have progressed no further than the freak show tent at a small-town carnival. I'm amazed at how many people spend time watching videos of incredibly famous people doing or saying incredibly foolish things. I'm amazed at how many Jackass-type videos go viral, showing ordinary people doing extraordinary foolish things. We watch; we laugh; we feel superior.
On the flip-side, I'm heartened that so many people enjoy watching the innocence of children, the joy of animals, the serendipity of life caught on video. These real-life moments, by their nature unscripted and unfiltered, often garner the most hits - the surprise wedding proposal, an impaired child seeing or hearing a parent for the first time, one human being defying circumstances to help another.
Just such a moment went viral the other day. The Ku Klux Klan held a rally on the steps of the South Carolina state capitol, protesting the removal of the Confederate battle flag. The KKK was protesting on one side of the capitol grounds and New Black Panther Party affiliates were celebrating on the other. As the story posted at YahooNews! noted, "The rallies overlapped and tensions escalated." Into this breach stepped Leroy Smith, the director of South Carolina's public safety agency, who was photographed helping an elderly protester, overcome by heat, to shade and medical attention. Leroy Smith is black and the elderly man white one of the KKK protesters. The photo spoke for itself; one man, black, helping another man, white, in spite of the circumstances. After the photo went viral, Leroy Smith spoke for himself, saying he was just doing his job to "preserve and protect," "regardless of the person's skin color, nationality or beliefs."
Viral can be voyeuristic or victorious; I may be compelled by the former but I'm inspired by the latter.