Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Aaron Fairbairn's Story: How Social Media Memorialized a Soldier

It was one of those rare moments that are only
possible if one experiences them as it happens. During the waning hours of Independence Day, a man named Aaron Fairbairn become the most popular topic on the social media website, Twitter. In a week dominated by coverage of two unstable humanoids, Twitter users took the time to thank Aaron Fairbairn for his service to our country. He was not a pop icon or an Alaskan maverick; he was more than that. He was a man who died serving his country. On the Fourth of July, Aaron was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. His stepfather, David Masters, wrote about Aaron’s death on Twitter. Seeing the post (or “tweet”) “they killed my son, Aaron!” is gut-wrenching. Instead of internalizing his grief and pain, Masters chose to share it with his followers on Twitter, making a simple request: “I'd like to see "Thank you, Aaron," show up on the Trending Topics for giving his life on Independence Day in Afghanistan.” What followed was not only an outpouring of respect and condolences, but proof that ordinary people can change the course of how modern media functions and what it chooses to cover.

There have been many skeptics regarding Twitter’s concept of expressing yourself in 140 characters or less, the majority of which were the “old guard” of traditional news media (see Maureen Dowd). The fallout of the Iranian election all but eradicated these prejudices. The Iranian government clamped down on internet use in an effort to suppress voter outrage. Unfortunately for them, many Iranians had the internet on their cell phones and used them to tell the world what their own government did not want anyone else to see. The mainstream media was forced to look at Twitter posts for information. Although 140 character “tweets” are almost impossible to vet in the traditional journalism sense, the media had little choice. Thousands of Twitter users showed their support for the Iranian people by tinting their profile green, a statement of solidarity that is still being used as of this writing. There is little doubt the mainstream media despised having to not only rely on bloggers, but individuals they could not potentially identify to gain information. Iran had expelled all foreign journalists, leaving the CNN’s and New York Times’ editors little choice but to turn to the technology which is slowly bringing about their demise.

The Twitter home page has a section called “trending topics;” a list of the most used words and phrases that shows what users are most discussing at the current moment. A user can click on any of these topics and receive a time-sensitive list of “tweets” on the selected subject. This function became an invaluable asset in understanding the debacle in Iran. David Masters probably had no idea that his request for his son would be as popular as it would eventually become. Twitter’s “trending topics” are currently unrestricted and unsponsored, meaning literally anything is possible as long as enough people write about it. Topics such as Sarah Palin, Michael Jackson and even the word “goodnight” were flourishing at the time of Masters’ request to honor his son. As in the case of Iran, Twitter users took in upon themselves to say what was really important to them. “Thank you Aaron” was in the middle of the pack when I spotted a “tweet” by “MichelleinCal”, an intelligent, funny woman who is a traditional conservative, something a certain person from Alaska would be well advised to take notes from. After seeing her posts with “ThankyouAaron,” I was immediately saddened for the loss of someone who gave his life to serve their country.

The loss of a soldier’s life become more important to Twitter users than Wimbledon results, Michael Jackson rumors and Sarah Palin sarcasms. It became a mission for many to see Aaron honored in a matter befitting an American hero. I may not remember where I was when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was number one on the charts, but I will always remember seeing “thank you Aaron” becoming the top Twitter topic. If there had been any doubt of the internet’s ability to bring people together for a cause they believe in, the appreciation of the service of Aaron Fairbairn should eliminate this misconception completely. “Thank you Aaron” was a moment those involved will never forget. In an era where there are few true heroes, the Twitterverse chose to honor the life of a young man. Without the filtering and bias of the mainstream media, the world is showing it’s true heart and soul through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Maybe real people don’t want to watch and read hours of coverage on Michael Jackson. Maybe they want to hear stories about real people doing real things, making hard choices that affect all of us. These stories do not gain much ground in the meeting rooms of newspapers and networks, but it has become obvious stories like that of Aaron Fairbairn’s are indeed what the world wants to talk about.

Sadly, there has been negative feedback about Aaron’s story. Initially, several Twitter users attempted to call the story fabricated. Worse yet were attempts to discredit his stepfather, David Masters on the grounds he was using his son’s death to promote himself. It is pathetic that some people have such malice inside them to incite these allegations. Apparently to these asshats, making a name for yourself by hurting other people is the only way they believe they can get noticed. Granted, comments made on Twitter and the internet in general are protected by the First Amendment. Lies, rumors and gossip do get people noticed. They also can result in extreme negative reaction (ask Perez Hilton). Thankfully, Fox News vetted and confirmed Aaron’s story. Subsequently, other news outlets would follow suit. In a slow newsday and a better world, more mainstream media coverage would have been given to Aaron. Despite the positive blurb from Fox News, the media’s focus turned back on a more famous individual, but not a man who in any logical sense could be described as a hero.

One begins to wonder if this is a war. A war declared by the mainstream media versus Web 2.0. The old school media makes a living by reporting and manipulating the news. The supposedly unconnected, attention-grabbing bloggers and Twitterers are not making a living by reporting. They are reporting the news because they are living it. What people feel in real time stands in complete contrast to talking points, ratings graphs or whatever the editor or producer decides should be broadcast. The mainstream media appeals to their demographics and their bottom line. They are beholden to their advertisers and producers. Their supposed embrace of Twitter and Facebook is nothing but a fa├žade designed to keep what little hold on the news they have left. Instead of running stories on Aaron Fairbairn and the half dozen plus other soldiers who died in the last week, the mainstream media kept its focus largely on Michael Jackson. The Jackson story is one the media had basic control of most information. Given his reclusive nature, it was unlikely any average citizen would garner a scoop that would upstage the very biased, controlled coverage. This journalistic debacle would culminate Tuesday, July 7th, with hours upon hours of coverage of Jackson’s memorial service. Many announcers seemed excited to have work, making one wonder if they were actually celebrating a funeral. It seemed July 7th would go down in history as the day the media died.

Aaron Fairbairn was not a celebrity, but he became in death more loved and respected than the uber-famous Jackson, whose memory will always be dogged with rumors and scandal. Aaron’s life and interests might remind you of people you know. His MySpace profile reads: “Hey my name is Aaron Faibairn, I am 20 and in the army. I like to ride dirtbikes, go muddin and all of that kind of stuff. One of my favorite things to do is work on my truck when I break it. I have a yamaha yz 125 I haven't got to ride it much because of work but i plan to go race it sometime.” There are many young men like Aaron, who love hanging with friends, playing with big toys and getting as dirty as they can. I wish I could have met him. Through MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, I kinda did. Making these connections meant more to me than a glossy funeral for a man few knew and even less understood. Given the choice of meeting either of these men, I’d rather go mudding with Aaron. Hopefully he’s rodding around on his Yamaha in the great beyond. Thank you, Aaron.

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