After Boston bombings, an outpouring of digital empathy

By John Santore -- Medill News Service
After Boston bombings, an outpouring of digital empathy
PHOTO John Santore -- Medill News Service

WASHINGTON, April 18 -- In the immediate aftermath of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the outpouring of emotion for -- and empathy with -- the victims emerged in the digital world as fast as news of the tragedy could spread.

Twitter, with its staccato posts, raw videos, and unedited photographs, channeled a growing stream of reaction and shock. Facebook became a home for messages of solidarity and comfort, such as a widely circulated portrait of Mr. Rogers reminding children to “look for the helpers” during times of crisis.


And new but increasingly common ways of using something as mundane as a Google doc revealed how ambient intimacy can translate into real-time, and real-world, action.

Chris McCartney-Melstad said he was standing on the marathon route between the 22nd and 23rd mile when the explosions occurred. Within a few hours, he saw a Boston Globe link to a shared Google document where local residents able to host runners could post their names, emails and phone numbers. He signed up immediately.

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“Making the offer of a place to stay seemed like a natural and easy way to help during a time of need,” McCartney-Melstad said.


He was the first to add his information. Jerri Milbank posted seconds after McCartney, noting that she could “come get anyone who needs a place to stay.” “It was just a very simple gesture,” she said. By the end of the day, nearly 4,800 people had done the same, a number that would grow to more than 6,000 by Wednesday.

“We also realized that there were thousands of people from out of town who were searching for family, trying to get home, or just too afraid to stay in hotels so close to where this happened,” said Rachael Becker, who also signed up. “We wanted to do anything we could do to help.”

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“Please don’t hesitate,” wrote Daniel Tatar on the document.

“It’s a small enough city that everybody knows somebody that’s going to be impacted,” he said, adding that he knew several people who were hurt in the blast. “Everybody’s one person away.”

Why we seek that “sense of connection”

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"The empathy that you witness is a real phenomenon, and actually it's very predictable in this kind of situation,” said Michele Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies group responses to crises.


Gelfand said the public’s response to the bombings was motivated in part by simple emotion - thoughts of, “What if this were me?” Also at play was a visceral desire for unity when faced with a perceived common threat.

Social media now offers a way to immediately, and publicly, manifest those feelings. "In a disaster, and in a revolution, social media provides a sense of connection," said Betsy Page Sigman, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business who studies online media. “Facebook, for example, serves as a meeting spot for people to express themselves, to express concern for other, to find out about others, to inspire others, to pray."

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Online networks and technologies are also rapidly developing into forums for action during a crisis.

Before the internet, those witnessing a tragedy unfold “were kind of helpless,” said Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University’s chief digital officer and a digital media professor at the Columbia Journalism School.

Today, tools like Google’s People Finder allow those who escaped harm following a tragic event to announce that they’re safe. Those not directly impacted are empowered as well.

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“They immediately want to help the families,” Sreenivasan said. “People have a sense that they can do something. Instead of just watching in horror, they can actually participate. They can share the stories and try to help raise money.”


Can we empathize beyond our own borders?

Even so, questions were quickly raised concerning the nature and scope of the empathy on display, especially considering the attention paid to Boston in the midst of a shocking degree of ongoing violence in a host of foreign nations.

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“I'm up for us ‘All Being Bostonians Today,’” wrote Gary Younge, a journalist for The Guardian, in a well-received tweet. “But then can we all be Yemenis tomorrow & Pakistanis the day after? That's how empathy works.”

Younge made clear that the concern shown to the Boston victims was absolutely warranted, but said he wanted to highlight problems in other places as well.

“The tweet,” he said, “was an appeal for an empathy that goes beyond national borders. Empathy that doesn’t go beyond national borders, in my opinion, isn’t empathy. It’s a form of national solipsism.”

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Gelfand, the Maryland psychology professor, said that events are felt most strongly by those closest to them.

“When people witness it from afar, they still might feel empathy,” she said. “But when conflict is not on your own soil, it doesn't have the same psychological implications."

Sreenivasan, however, noted the success of online campaign focused on far-away issues, such as Kony 2012.


“People want to get involved,” he said. “Things that used to be at a distance aren’t at as much of a distance anymore. There’s still obviously local stuff that’s going to have a higher impact. But the world has been made a much smaller place today by social media.”

For their part, both Daniel Tartar and Jerri Milbank, the Boston residents who posted to that Google doc, said they were contacted by strangers thanking them for offering to help.

“One young woman just wanted to talk, she was so upset,” Milbank said. “There is still so much good in the world despite the violence that happened.”

And both said that while local concerns may be more immediately impactful, attention should be paid to needs wherever they are felt.

“Personally, I think tragedies are defined by the victims, not the perpetrator,” Tartar said. “Anytime human life is lost and a community is unexpectedly forced to grieve, it’s a time for communal empathy.” To the extent that social media is impacting such feelings, the technologies at play will only become more pronounced.

In the future, “almost nothing of consequence will go unrecorded when it happens,” Sreenivasan said.


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