When worlds collide and boundaries bleed: Intersections between online and real life

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Last week we witnessed two liminal moments in the space between the online and real worlds. In two very different ways, the edges bled beyond the boundary of one to the other.

First, we watched and listened as a heart-wrenchingly, frighteningly calm young Black woman, Diamond Reynolds, used Facebook Live to stream a real-time video of the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile. She broadcast images of her dying, bleeding companion, of the officer -- weapon drawn -- urging her to keep her hands visible. Of her child trying to comfort her. Of her pleas to the officer not to tell her that her boyfriend was dead.

It is an understatement to say the video was powerful live news. It is almost impossible to watch, even harder to listen to. And it showed up in Ms. Reynolds' Facebook feed as it unfolded. From her phone. It was viewed millions of times after that.

A streaming video service Facebook imagined would be used to stream exploding watermelons and birthday parties suddenly became the platform for astonishingly engaging and horrifying news footage. The real world had punched its way into the social media construct that left itself open to that brutal assault. 

For an hour the video disappeared from Facebook due to what the social network called a glitch. Most observers are calling bullshit on that excuse, and I agree. 

What the "glitch" does point out, though, is that Facebook was woefully unprepared with the protocols, ethical guidelines and news judgement that should come with the ability to allow citizens to cover themselves in real time. However, that judgement only really comes with years of news experience, which Facebook lacks.

Of course, last week Ms. Reynolds wasn't the only one who broadcast death live. In Chicago Antonio Perkins was streaming a light-hearted Facebook video when shots rang out and Perkins was fatally wounded.

Facebook has, time after time, insisted it is not a news service despite it courting news outlets to post Instant Stories on the platform. Despite how many Facebook users get their news solely from inside the platform. Despite these two incidents. 

But, despite its protestations, it is. Now it has to strap on its big boy pants and face that reality. And, it needs to face it not by giving us a censored, Pollyanna view of the world where exploding watermelons live. It needs to own up to its reach, its power and its responsibility. Or, it's going to start looking like a six year old driving an 18-wheeler.

Now, for the other half of the real world/social media osmosis. Last week in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., gaming giant Nintendo, along with game maker Niantic Inc., released Pokemon GO. Pokemon is a '90s hit game that encouraged players to collect and incubate the odd creatures that inhabited the gamespace. This version brings the gamespace into the real world. Using their smartphones, players can locate and collect characters who are geo-located around actual landmarks and locations. The characters are superimposed over the real locations when players view those landscapes through the screens of their smartphones. 

The game, only a week old, is already threatening to overtake Twitter in average users' daily activity. Its insane popularity has boosted Nintendo's stock by 25 per cent. Discussion of the adventure has already generated the second most popular subreddit around. In New York's Central Park, Pokemon GO players, faces in their phones, are swarming like fish flies over Lake Huron at sunset.

And, in a tragic overlap of both liminal moments, a teenaged girl in Wyoming climbed a fence to track down a Pokemon near the Big Wind River. Instead she found a male body floating just offshore. Death arrives on both sides of a bleeding divide. 

Marshall McLuhan said that the most heat is generated at the edges of things, like two uncoiled gears meshing. Last week that intersection was a dangerous one indeed.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: VFS Digital Design/flickr

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