What do we reveal about our culture through our responses to online media such as YouTube, Facebook, and the blogosphere? And what opinions do we acquire from exposure to these new media?
One of the first biggest recorded collective toilet flushes occurred on February 28, 1983.
This piece of information was casually mentioned to me one day by my spouse, the water engineer. After running for eleven seasons, the television comedy series M.A.S.H., concluded on the evening of the big flush.
In an age where VCRs and extended, frequent advertisement breaks had yet to be invented, all bladders were filled to bursting by the time the two hour episode ended. At that point, New York City experienced a large collective draw on water reservoirs as people ran to the bathroom and then flushed their toilets.
The trouble is, I can not stop thinking about this. It's keeping me up at nights. I realize now that for a long time after the advent of television there was an era when almost all Canadians and Americans could be counted on to be in the same place at once -- in front of the television, during prime time.
Before the VCR stood vigil in our living rooms, we had to be there in person or we missed our favorite show -- at least until it returned in reruns. These were the days when people adjusted all manner of work and volunteer activities around "their show," whether that was Leave It to Beaver, M.A.S.H. or The Beachcombers.
It may not have always been edifying or even unifying, but families were gathered in front of that box in the same room, often. If there was a message to be delivered by those in positions of power and authority to the masses in North America, they knew how to give it and when to do it. With the advent of the VCR, the DVD, the Internet, Nintendo, iPod and Blackberry as well as the increase in the numbers of televisions per home, this is no longer the case.
If the medium is the message as Marshall McLuhan said, then the message is in bits. The steady stream of information that once could be fed to us through television and radio has now morphed into a myriad of dribbles.
I discovered myself, quite by accident, evidence of a frenzy of trickle-makers. Once a week, after church, I check out what my younger parishioners might be looking at on YouTube.
On March 2, 2008, a video appeared which showed a US Marine throwing a puppy over a cliff. The grainy video, taken from a cell phone, reveals a Marine holding a black and white puppy, obviously terrified, by the scruff of the neck. A man, off camera, (perhaps the guy with the cell phone) croons, "So cute, so cute, little puppy."
Then the soldier on screen, saying sarcastically, "Oh, I tripped," flings the puppy over a cliff into the dry, dusty canyon, as it yelps, flipping end over end into the distance.
"That's mean. That was mean, Motari," remarks the off-camera man.
It was mean. Very mean. And it immediately went viral. YouTube deleted the video quickly. However, after being viewed over 145, 000 times it was too late to stop the epidemic. In the days to follow, it bobbed up again and again all over the world on too many sites to even begin counting. A month later it continued to be resurrected on You Tube in a variety of ways, under a dizzying array of headings.
A multimedia gush of counter-spin rapidly followed. South of the 49th parallel, editorial decisions were rapidly made about what puppy stories were chosen to run and what to omit in the major news services. In Canada the silence was defining, if not quite deafening. The parliamentary vote to approve staying the course in poor, parched Afghanistan was set for March 13, 2008. No puppy stories for us.
For our American cousins, (who love their puppies), seven streams of counter-spin began to cascade virtually and simultaneously:
1) Videos about Marines and Puppies are suspect. On March 4, 2008, a very slick one was created on YouTube which paired it up with Peggy Lee's song "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?" It implied that someone might have been paid to leak the video. The original puppy cellphone video was taken apart frame by frame as messages flashed upon the screen with questions like: "How do you know the dog is not fake?"
"Puppies do not curl their tails like that under their bodies." "Don't be taken in by this. That is what the Taliban want," and "Don't you think the dog was dead already?"
I tried to download the video a few days later but it too had been removed. I realized then that all of these videos are floating, moving targets. I tried to remove Peggy Lee's song from my head that night, but it was too embedded to leave. Talk about viral.
2) Marines really are kind to puppies and work side by side with them -- A.K.A. "puppies are soldiers too!" By March 3, 2008, if you Googled "Soldier Throwing Puppy Off Cliff" a sea of interesting articles began to appear from the major news services and carriers. Soldiers were helping, rescuing, and being kind to dogs. A lovely article, "Dogs of War Play Key Role in Iraq," appeared on the National Public Radio website.
3) Dead heroic and kind Marines loved particular Iraqi puppies; their families now have only the puppies to remember them by. The Associated Press ran a piece "Iraqi dogs a memento of late soldier." Ill-fated Peter Neesley, Army Sergeant, rescued two dogs from the streets of Iraq.After his death the dogs arrived at his parent's home in Michigan. How can you question anything associated with a dead heroic Marine?
4) It's a stress thing. Beginning her ABC News article with "Many war-weary veterans of the Iraq war take kindly to the animals they meet abroad; some of them have even brought the dogs home with them at the end of their tours of duty..." Emily Friemen opined that it was the stress of war that created this mental health problem in individual soldiers. It's not really their fault. Probably the Taliban are to be blamed, again.
5) Some puppies deserve to die. My local newspaper published nothing about this puppy-tossing video, but it did provide another one about dogs. The article was entitled "India to Poison 100,000 stray dogs." It described dogs running amok and spreading rabies to thousands of people, provoking the Indian government to kill them en masse.
6) Real Marines are really mad at the Puppy Killer. Fox News declared that, although the Pentagon would not confirm or deny the authenticity of the video, the real Marines were appalled at what happened to the puppy.
7) The Puppy Killer's innocent family is being persecuted by the real "crazies." Fox News ran a headline, "Marine, Family Receive Death Threats and Hate Mail Over Puppy Abuse Video." Although a Marine source in Honolulu said the video was "suspect," they declared themselves to be more upset than the general public about the content.
The real problem for those who would like to control public opinion and thought is that ideas spawn other ideas. Soon the chat rooms and blogs noted that all of the outrage about the puppy being thrown over the cliff was ridiculous given that millions of Iraqi children had been starved and damaged by both the Iraq war and the economic embargo that preceded it. Blogger Cenk Uygur remarked: "I have now seen this story everywhere. Everyone is outraged. Are you kidding me? We caused the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians and we're outraged over a puppy?!"
Negative press around puppies is one thing. Making the mental leap to soldiers and governments doing the systemic equivalent of throwing Iraqi babies over cliffs is quite another. Now, that really is a dangerous idea.
What did we hear from the CBC, Canadian Press or Global? Nothing. At all. Canadians were certainly talking about it -- but no one in the newsroom is trolling the deeps of the World Wide Web for what the young 'uns are watching and swearing about.
Getting back to the really big flush of February 28, 1983, what keeps me awake is the recognition, from observing the coverage or lack thereof of the puppy-tossing story, that mainstream media is losing relevance.
Publication of the puppy-tossing story might have ignited a good debate about what we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and the toll it is taking on our soldiers in "theatre." Perhaps some discussion may have happened around the context in which some Canadian citizens serve.
I love the feel of the morning newspaper in my hands and I cherish sipping my coffee as I watch the television news. These are rituals of hope and trust that inform what I do and who I am.
Unless these institutions stop behaving as if most of us have no access to, or interest in, the news circulating around the world via the Web, their futures and therefore our right to good, in-depth information will be flushed away, like so much stale coffee.
Linda Yates is a United Church minister in Halifax.