The Internet may be a vast, complex realm, but what gives it life—what makes it great—begins with tiny, almost trivial human connections.
Earlier this week, a firefighter named Ryan Swafford in Marion, Indiana became a folk hero on social news site Reddit. Swafford ran into a burning apartment to save a man’s cat. Three other cats died in the fire.
Redditor Logan Fernandes, whose mother is the manager of the apartment complex, posted a photo of Swafford resuscitating the cat. The photo has inspired an outpouring of assistance from redditors: They’ve found the victim a new place, pledged more than $7,000 to pay all veterinary bills, and offered various furnishings, including a $300 tiger-print rug.
When I first read the story, I cynically thought it was kind of ridiculous. I mean, I like cats—more so than dogs even—but I don’t think there’s a reason, in the absolute value, to risk a human life to save a feline one.
But then I read about what precisely happened. When the firefighters arrived, the distraught resident was crying out, “They’re all I’ve got.” Moved by the victim’s distress, Swafford ran into the burning building.
For Swafford, it seems, his own opinion of whether a cat’s life might be worth his own was irrelevant. What mattered was how much the cat mattered to the man whose home was going up in flames.
The fastest growing section on Reddit right now is r/justiceporn. The sleepy subreddit took off earlier this week with a video from Turkey. In the video, a youth taunts a stuttering street sweeper, removing his belt threateningly and pursuing the man. After several attempts to just walk away, the street sweeper turns and fights. After all, he’s the one carrying a big stick (a large broom, in this case).
It’s intensely satisfying to watch the bully suddenly turn and run—to bolt in fear—from the victim, whose ire is finally raised.
Apparently, Canadians are nicer.
Two reporters for student publications at McGill and Concordia universities were detained late last week in an illegal protest over tuition hikes. Regular members of the press were released quickly, but since these two were students, not part of the “organized press,” they were not.
So, like good millennials, the two young journalists took to Twitter for justice. They tweeted about their predicament to the police’s official account. The police quickly responded over Twitter and the students were set free shortly thereafter. The official account even tweeted to confirm their release.
If only dealing with the phone company were so easy.
More precisely, there are a host of problems with the site that have disrupted the rich community of vloggers that have built up interactive audiences of millions over the years. Perhaps YouTube is most widely known for clips of movies and shows (before they’re DMCAed into oblivion) and coke bottles exploding. But it’s the huge community of people who share their lives, their ideas and opinions, and their jokes that give it heart.
Between the site redesign, broken subscription buttons, the new related-videos algorithm, an annoying Google+ integration, and bugs that allegedly unsubscribe viewers and cause monetization problems, many of this community’s most-dedicated members feel the site is broken.
It isn’t, of course. YouTube is actually just fine. It’s the community that’s in trouble. YouTube is looking to build a multi-billion dollar business, and it hasn’t found that with vlogging. It hopes to find it by becoming a massive medium of broadcasting. It hopes to replace TV. And with that vision it is displacing the community that helped build it.
As our most-beloved sites grow up, what happens to the Ryan Swaffords, the r/justiceporns, and the quirky vloggers?
Right now, you can get “downtown”—police headquarters—to take care of your complaint over Twitter in a way that is unimaginable in any other medium. What would have happened if those student reporters in Montreal had called an 800 number? They’d still be listening to muzak.
Twitter, huge as it is, is still a way to cut through the noise and contact the police— human to human.
Reddit may have beat Digg, but it’s still somewhere where people can be inspired by an act of compassion that was completely trivial to everyone in the world except the recipient.
One of the comments in r/justiceporn was telling. “If you were smart you wouldn’t have turned this into a subreddit, you would’ve turned it into a business!” RaptorJesusDesu wrote. Being a business is exactly what is threatening the YouTube community, because the need for profit is threatening the kinds of trivial human interactions that r/justiceporn is really all about.
What we’re seeing in real time is that there is something de-humanizing about the corporatization of things.
Does it have to be that way? Business shouldn’t be the antithesis of community. Main Street, after all, is mainly composed of storefronts. And any company is just a bunch of people. (Two is company.)
The Internet will grow up, and our beloved communities will also become businesses. Can the Internet find a way to succeed where the rest of society has so often failed? Can the community of the Internet accommodate a more human company?
We’re in this together now.
Photo by Logan Fernandes