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Texting killing tells us only one thing

By David Weinberger
updated 8:44 AM EST, Wed January 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Weinberger: Media, readers riveted by story of shooting of texter in theater
  • He says we look only because it raises issues people care about: guns, civility, texting
  • As we learn particulars, story sheds ever less light on those broader issues, he says
  • Writer: These stories feed our existing notions, there are no lessons. It is only tragic

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books).

(CNN) -- Thousands of clicks per minute. More than 23,000 reader comments, with the counter spinning like an odometer in a "Fast and Furious" movie. With 45 murders a day in the United States and about one a minute worldwide, why have so many of us fastened on this one? Why do we care so much about the shooting death of someone for texting during a movie?

It's clear from the headlines why the media are featuring the story: It's not just a fatal shooting. It's a fatal shooting over texting. As a crime story, it would be confined to the local Tampa paper. As an Internet story, readers can't look away.

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

We're reading it because we think it tells us something about an issue we already care about. You can see this in the comments of people reading online articles about it. For some people, it's proof that the texting has gone too far. For others it's a lesson about gun control. Others use it to decry the loss of civility.

That's how we take the story. But what does it actually tell us?

That some people habitually text too much? We already knew that, but it's not clear at all that the victim, Chad Oulson, was one of those people. Maybe his 3-year-old had a question or just needed to hear from her dad.

That some people are thoughtless about how what they're doing affects the people around them? We already knew that, although it could be that Oulson thought his texting was unobtrusive or was urgent enough to override the concerns of those he was disturbing.

That the norms for Internet use are not yet fully agreed upon by everyone? We already knew that, although maybe the gunman was provoked not by the rudeness of Internet users but by what he perceived as the general rudeness of those who unwrap crinkly candies, talk back to the screen and whisper about what's about to happen.

Witness: Shooter 'irritated' over text
Heroes step up at movie theater shooting
Student records texting bus driver

The truth is, I fear, that although we receive news of this horrible incident as evidence of something, there's really nothing to learn from it -- or from other individual events that are supposed to prove a point -- for two reasons.

First, lots of people are rude in theaters without getting shot. So, we'd need to know what made this case different. Was the texter unusually persistent or obnoxious? Was he in a bad mood because his 3-year-old needed something from him, because he thought previews count as advertisements and thus can be disrupted?

And why would this provoke someone to shoot him? Was the shooter mentally unstable? On bad meds? Convinced that this would send a message to texters everywhere? To understand this story, we would need to know the specifics -- why this texter got shot this time -- because humans don't act for general reasons.

But, as we understand the specifics, the scope of what we learn decreases. This becomes less an example of, say, the push-back against the Internet than a story about particular people in a particular circumstance. The more specific the details, the less you can generalize from it.

That holds not just for this story but for every time the media present a dramatic event in the life of individuals. Choosing to take something as evidence of what we already believe is the opposite of evidence. "Man shoots texter" is not evidence of a larger societal trend unless it is well-researched and part of a much larger, systematically gathered set of data.

There would be no harm done, except stories like this actually get in the way of our learning something new. They encourage us to go "Tsk," and sadly shake our heads as if one of our beliefs has yet again been shown to be right, because that's how we've chosen to construe it.

In short, we learn nothing from stories like these except which narratives the media think will get us to pay attention, and which narratives actually do. But this killing is not a lesson. It is just a tragedy.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Weinberger.

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