The 2013 Boston Marathon: Acute, Physical Tragedy, Momentous Digital Response


Today’s tragic Boston Marathon bombing was as real, visceral and tangible as the grizzly Newtown, CT school shooting or any other recent rip through our collective sense of safety, priority and moral good. I cannot overstate that. As I sit here now however, trying to reconcile today’s losses, thanking my lucky stars friends and family-members nearby escaped unscathed and searching for more information about what could have motivated such a senseless attack beyond a broad, jaundiced hatred of American freedom, culture and national pride, I can’t help but notice the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing conversation is dominated – and our country as united as ever – by the speed and reach of social media.

A family member’s text message right around 3pm first alerted me to a trickle of local Tweets starting to swell from Copley Square about “explosions at the finish line.” Within an instant I reacted the only way I knew how to reach as many people as quickly as possible: I blasted out Twitter, Facebook and Google+ posts identifying the blast address and urging anyone who might see it to steer clear. I don’t know if anyone actually read it, I don’t know if Facebook’s bullshit post-rank algorithm limited circulation of it to 10% of my social circle – but I communicated something really important, timely and urgent and made it discoverable to at least 1,500 people in my immediate network and, maybe, just maybe, that helped someone connect with a loved one faster, get out of the blast area before the third bomb was set off in a controlled detonation by law enforcement, or respond to urgent need. Digital did all that before I could even start dialing my phone, and I wasn’t alone.

Throughout the rest of the afternoon, as I re-connected with friends and family both near and far, Twitter remained my go-to source of information, with incredible coverage from people like @BostonDotcomsports producer Steve Silva (@stevesilva) and the Globe’s social media team. And while I rarely spend more than 5 minutes a day on Facebook unless I’m pushing out a ZoomTilt update through Hootsuite, for the past few hours I’ve been glued to the steady, focused stream of articles, encouragement, thanks and prayers that have pushed aside the usual scattering of topically-fragmented, light-hearted status updates. The rapid interconnectedness of social media has made it a global outlet for grief, and I’ve been incredibly touched by the amazing support, kindness and community on display in the face of overwhelming tragedy during such a historic, positive event.

As Kathrine Switzer, the first female marathon runner once said, “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon,” and I think also, watch how everyone’s responded to this particular marathon to check in with loved ones, keep one another safe and care for those hurt this afternoon. And, ironically, social media, a platform many typically deride as frivilous or de-humanizing, has bolstered our sense of connectivity and ability to reflect, reconcile and comment on tragedy like never before.

Nothing can undo today’s loss, so the best we can do is use it as a reminder that life is random, finite and precious, and use that as a catalyst to be better to each other, better at what we do and keep the conversations that matter going.

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