Riots in Real Time

L.A. is such a mystery to me, as much now as it ever was; as baffling now as it was to my 9-year-old self watching the 1992 riots unfold live on the news, or to my 11-year-old self witnessing the surreal O.J. Simpson Bronco chase on the 405, a freeway I’ve come to know well in recent years.

In my younger days, L.A. was Bayside High, California Dreams, Encino Man, “Valley Girls,” Beverly Hills 90210, Disneyland, Hollywood, the Oscars. Or it was a place of constant calamity: the Northridge earthquake, mudslides, fires, various  car chases chronicled by the vulture news helicopters L.A. helped normalize. The point is: my understanding of L.A. was (and still is, to some extent) formed by media portrayals, mass-communicated narratives of “reality” packaged chiefly as entertainment. This is how we understand the world.

The ubiquity of media and its nonstop coverage of events has gradually shaped the way we perceive reality. So much of what we know about the world, and how we know it, relies on the way we receive it via media. When I was growing up, that meant television and movies. Now, it includes a whole lot more.

I expect that for many in my generation who grew up far from Los Angeles, the L.A. Riots were a formative influence in the shaping of perceptions of the City of Angels. I remember watching it on the evening news from my comfortable suburban home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, feeling like I was witnessing something from a movie, or at least something happening in a third world country. The surreal drama and (dare I say it) can’t-turn-away entertainment of it all was precisely what the mediators were going for. It’s engrossing. Big ratings.

Los Angeles lends itself especially well to the surrealist blurring of “news” and “entertainment,” perhaps because this town is the world’s largest factory of fiction, even while it is home to 4 million very real and very explosive, intersecting stories. In many ways the city narrates itself, making sense of its impenetrable complexity through reductionist cliches (E!), gossip blogs (TMZ, Gawker) and self-referential experiments in storytelling (think of The Hills, the Kardashians or anything featuring non-stars who become stars simply by playing the part on TV).

Against this backdrop, I present @realtimeLARiots for your consideration. Operated by L.A.’s local NBC news station, this Twitter account has over the last few weeks presented a fascinating experiment in anachronistic media narrative: what would the #LARiots have looked like to us had they been narrated tweet-by-tweet? In 1992 all we had were local news choppers and CNN coverage. TV. Twenty years later, the Internet and social media allows for a more real-time, fragmented, staccato form of storytelling. What does  that look like when applied to a dynamic, unfolding-over-days crisis like the Rodney King riots?

I followed @realtimeLARiots because I thought it would be interesting/entertaining to relive those riots via Twitter; a history lesson as told through a contemporary medium. And indeed it was. The account incorporated archival photos, videos, quotes, and statistics seamlessly, telling the story of the riots through 20 years of collected data and hindsight, with a tone of urgency (#crisis) that lent the experiment a feeling of almost-authenticity.

The experiment raised a few questions for me:

  • How have “big events” been understood in recent years in a different way through social media than they would have been had they occurred decades ago? 9/11 predated social media, but it’s interesting to think about how our understanding of that day might look different had we all experienced it on Facebook and Twitter.
  • What does it mean to receive 140-character bursts of news (#UPDATE: Riot-related injuries up 1,800, says LA hospitals)–news that is very real and tragic for the people it is actually happening to–in between tweets about Jessica Simpson’s baby and a viral video about cute kittens? How does the leveling “feed” format of social media intake change the way we understand the weight and significance of any given thing?
  • What is the real purposes of something like @realtimeLARiots? Is it to educate and inform, to entertain, or to try something interesting and experimental with Twitter? I suspect it is the latter.

The whole thing feels like something Marshall McLuhan or Jean Baudrillard would be fascinated by, and indeed, I think this quote from the latter captures something of what we’re talking about here:

“…what if the sign did not relate either to the object or to meaning, but to the promotion of the sign as sign? And what if information did not relate either to the event or the facts, but to the promotion of information itself as event? And more precisely today: what if television no longer related to anything except itself as message? This is where McLuhan’s formulation can be seen to be absolutely brilliant: the medium has swallowed the message and it is this, the multi-medium, which is proliferating in all directions. And we are, indeed, seeing terrestrial and cable channels and services proliferating while actual programme content is disappearing and melting away — the TV viewer’s almost involuntary channel-hopping here echoing television’s own obsession with its own channels.

“But this is not where the true corruption lies. The secret vice, already pointed out by Umberto Eco, lies in the way the media become self-referring and speak only among themselves. The multimedium is becoming the intermedium. This already problematic situation is aggravated when it is a single hypermedium — television — eyeing itself. All the more so as this tele-centrism is combined with a very severe implicit moral and political judgement: it implies that the masses basically neither need nor desire meaning or information — that all they ask for is signs and images. Television provides them with these in great quantities, returning to the real world, with utter — though well camouflaged — contempt, in the form of ‘reality shows’ or vox-pops — that is to say, in the form of universal self-commentary and mocked-up scenarios, where both the questions and the answers are ‘fixed’.”

-Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out (2002)

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One response to “Riots in Real Time

  1. Thanks for this. Like you, I suspect the LA Riots Twitter feed is more about novelty than education. But then again, maybe it’s somewhere in between (the word “infotainment” comes to mind).

    Great Baudrillard quote, very relevant. I studied him in a sociological theory course a couple years ago and, like Neil Postman, the man just keeps getting more insightful as the years roll on.

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