You are strapped to a chair. There is a virtual target on your brain. You hear the words, Ready, Aim, Fire. And boom, thousands of pieces of data are being shot at you from every angle. Every time your mind begins to adjust to the pace of incoming information, the tempo quickens. The words and images shoot past you — an oil spill, a baby announcement, a pun, a product recommendation, a meaningless aside, a deep thought, requests from your job and your personal life, messages from Afghanistan and your kid’s soccer coach. Ping, ping, ping. You feel overwhelmed, but you can’t look away. Every now and then, a critical connection or a bit of information you really care about is mixed in with the heaps of regurgitated hogwash. So you remain focused on the data. And it keeps on coming. Rat-a-tat-tat.
Welcome to your life in the realtime stream.
Since I am strapped to this chair like the rest of you, I can’t quite figure out why the tweeting of an execution would come as much of surprise to anyone. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff recently made headlines when he served up a series of tweets related to Ronnie Lee Gardner’s execution by firing squad. On June 17 at 11:02pm, Shurtleff tweeted:
I just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner’s execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims.
My first reaction was that this event was too serious for Twitter. There is something sick about reducing a solemn act to a few characters. Are we entering an age when an execution can be stayed because the WiFi went down?
But in many ways, the execution-related tweet makes perfect sense. Twitter is where we are. And it’s where we get news. As Mark Shurtleff explained: “I believe in an informed public. As [an] elected official I use social media to communicate directly with people.”
Often, we’re not allowed to see the machinery of the state at work and here at least we got a realtime update on what was happening by an actual human being involved in the proceedings. I get that. And I also get that, like millions of others, Shurtleff is a person who likes to share details about his professional life and who surely enjoys his growing following on Twitter. Of course he is going to share this highly newsworthy moment in his career.
Shurtleff’s tweet made news because of its novelty. But like all sharing in the internet age, that novelty will wear off. The fifth or fiftieth tweet about an execution will not make headlines. And you should expect more of this content to come your way. This stream will not be dammed.
Whether or not a realtime, social tool like Twitter is the right delivery mechanism for news of this sort is already a moot question. Now, the more critical question is how we — the recipients, curators and creators of these relentless snippets — will manage the constant barrage of often wildly unrelated pieces of information.
How do we quickly differentiate blurbs that are almost entirely outside our personal experiences from those with which we have a deeply personal connection?
In a medium that combines birthday wishes and Starbucks check-ins along with sports scores, weather and the latest updates from Utah’s firing squad, it won’t be easy. The line between you and the outside world of news and information is becoming increasingly blurred. And if you can’t easily determine what you should be looking at, you end up looking at everything.
When do we pause? Which stories are worth an extra click? Should we know any details about the victims of Ronnie Lee Gardner’s crimes? Do we need to know anything about Gardner’s own biography?
Is this story close enough to our own daily lives to go deeper, or does this batch of 140 characters just pass us by along with the other data of the moment?
I probably had a good answer to that question when the story was fresh, but that was a few hundred million tweets ago. Who has the time to think about legacy content from a bygone era? Even Mark Shurtleff has moved on. A few tweets after announcing Utah’s execution by firing squad, he offered this:
USA WINS! USA WINS! Donovan on 90+1min goal advances USA into World Cup Round of Sixteen!