“Marathon Massacre” by Dan Wasserman, for The Boston Globe

As I write this, it’s 5:00 PM on April 15th, 2013. From my window over Massachusetts Avenue (we call it “Mass Ave”) in Cambridge—which I have open to let in one of the first nice spring days of the year—I can hear waves of sirens from the emergency vehicles that are still moving in response to the two explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line that went off just before 3:00 PM. The Mass Ave bridge between Boston and Cambridge is reportedly closed; large shuttle buses are trying, awkwardly and uncertainly, to make the turn off of Mass Ave onto one of my cross streets. The flags at both Cambridge City Hall and the Cambridge Post Office are still flying high, but I imagine they’ll be at half mast by the time you read this tomorrow. Even tomorrow, this intentional tragedy will still be very recent, very fresh, and very raw.

I’m sad in ways I can’t fully identify or explain, grateful that (so far as I know) everyone I care for here is okay, and—as I said on Twitter—longing for that time in the recent past when all the bombs (“bombs”) in Boston were actually stupid light-up LED pictures of cartoon characters. Somewhere in my disorganized thoughts, I’m also struck by the many ways that both people and institutions are using digital social technologies in response to this attack, and I’m going to try to get a few of those thoughts down here. In particular, I want to focus on the “vine” (short looping video) of one of the explosions that spread throughout my Twitter feed within an hour of the carnage at the finish line.

A vine is up to six seconds of video recorded with an Apple i-device (iPod, iPhone, iPad) using the Vine app, and it replays over and over again on endless repeat. The vine that turned up in my Twitter feed this afternoon shows news footage of the first explosion at the Boston Marathon finish line, as displayed on someone’s TV. One blogger has written that Vine—which, for all the buzz around its release, has until now mostly been ignored—has “[found] its purpose in the Boston Marathon explosion,” but my reaction was quite different. The first thing that I thought of when I saw the Marathon explosion vine was the iconic 9/11 footage of the second plane hitting the second tower, and how that footage was played over and over again in the days that followed September 11, 2001, and how that footage still gets played over and over again now (particularly on 11 September of any given year since). Most of the commentary I’ve read about the seemingly infinite replay of this footage doesn’t think so much replay is a good thing, and I tend to agree.

So now we have this vine of one of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. In it, the explosion happens over and over, again and again. And then again. There’s a flash as the bomb goes off, and the news footage glitches; an orange cloud rises, followed by white smoke; debris flies through the barriers that line Boylston Street; near the barriers, volunteers in bright yellow jackets cringe, cover their ears, and run; a runner falls in the street, struck in the leg by a flying object. Then there’s a flash as the bomb goes off, and the news footage glitches; an orange cloud rises, followed by white smoke; debris flies through the barriers that line Boylston Street; near the barriers, volunteers in bright yellow jackets cringe, cover their ears, and run; a runner falls in the street, struck in the leg by a flying object. Then there’s a flash as the bomb goes off, and the news footage glitches…until a runner falls in the street, struck in the leg by a flying object. And then there’s a flash. And the runner falls. Flash, fall. Flash. Fall. The scene repeats for as long as you choose to watch, and—on other screens, on servers somewhere—for long after you choose to turn away.

Vine app icon

Through Vine, the explosion happens just not on seemingly infinite replay, but on infinite replay. Enabled by a long chain of people, institutions, technologies, and devices—a chain that begins with a news channel, a cameraperson, and a video camera; a chain that culminates with Vine, a Vine user, and a smartphone—the explosion footage now seems to replay “all by itself.” Gone are the days when one had to watch an hour of TV news to see the same tragic explosion replay six times; gone, too, are the more recent days when seeing the same tragic explosion six times meant clicking “replay” five times on YouTube. Seeing this explosion six times takes only a single link click, and less than a minute of one’s time; in an hour, one could watch this explosion happen not just six times, but 600 times. Yet when I think of violent or tragic images replaying over and over on their own, I don’t think, “Oh, sweet, so that’s what Vine is for”; I think of how some people, including some people close to me, have described the flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The looping “vine” image of the explosion spread quickly through Twitter, and got posted on other websites; at least one major news organization incorrectly reported that it was eyewitness footage. (Seriously, LA Times? Even with the “Channel 7” logo at the bottom?) Within mere hours[i] of the explosions themselves, a range of commentators had posts up in which they wrote not so much about the tragedy as about one moving image of the tragedy (for examples, see here, here, or here). On Twitter, others speculated about what the Boston Marathon bombings might mean for Vine as a platform or medium. But seriously, let’s stop and think about this: Some unknown person (or persons) has set off explosive devices at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Those actions have killed three people (so far), and injured well over 100 others. Are a few seconds of looping video really the most noteworthy thing about this incident? Are the explosions themselves even the most noteworthy thing? Or is what matters most the loss of lives, limbs, and blood that someone(s) managed to cause by setting off explosions?

Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry) recently made a compelling argument that the affordances of social media platforms (as well as other things) are dynamic, and are the result not only of how social media platforms are designed to be used, but also of how people use the platforms in practice. Accordingly, if Vine has “a purpose” at all, then its purpose is determined just as much—if not moreso—by how people decide to use it; similarly, how people decide to use it is very much shaped by how people are already using it. Therefore, I say to you now: Think very carefully about whether tragedies belong on Vine, and about whether you should put them there.

Yes, a vine is both easy to make (if you have an i-device) and easy to share, and can circulate readily even among people who don’t use the Vine app. Yes, the fact that someone shot a vine of this news broadcast probably got that explosion footage in front of more people, and in front of more people more quickly, than the television broadcast and subsequent YouTube (etc) videos would have alone. But in shooting a vine of the explosion footage, the person who did so created an easily sharable short story of this afternoon’s events that reduces the tragedy of a violent act down to a bright orange flash. Vine being what it is, this visual short story also does its own work to rapidly become the image of these events that its viewers have seen the greatest number of times (no broadcast network sensationalism required). One might argue that this self-repeating aspect makes Vine a powerful tool for reporting, but just because Vine can be used this way doesn’t mean it should be used this way. And Vine definitely shouldn’t be used this way without careful reflection about what it means to put six violent seconds on infinite (and infinitely circulative) self-repeat.

Photo credit: Associated Press
This image better reflects what I think is most important about the explosions this afternoon. (Photo credit: AP)

If the informal consensus following the Boston Marathon explosions is that, yes, tragedy reporting is the purpose of Vine, then more people will use Vine to record tragedies and disasters when they happen. Our collective documentary vision will shift to include “shoot a vine” as a possible response to tragedies when we see (or even witness) them, as well as to include tragedies among the things we see as “vineable.” Would that be a desirable shift? What would happen if putting tragedies on Vine became commonplace? A milieu of circulating tragedy vines might…um…give some people new empathy for PTSD sufferers? No, probably not. But I’m trying to think of some net positive that might balance out the net negatives of declaring “circulating tragedy footage” to be the purpose of Vine, and so far, I’m not coming up with any.

In the end, the question is not whether Vine has “found its purpose,” but whether we want this to be its purpose—because shaping Vine’s purpose is up to us.


Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

[i] Out of respect for the victims of the bombings, and for the people close to them, this post has been set to go live Tuesday morning rather than Monday evening. I’m getting my thoughts down while they’re still fresh, but it doesn’t seem right to advance something that basically boils down to an animated GIF as the most important topic of conversation right now, even on a technology-and-society blog.