The Banality of Tragedy in the Age of YouTube

A man's dramatic rescue from a burning building, like so many similar scenes captured by amateurs, comes complete with a Director's Commentary.

Yesterday, as a five-alarm fire engulfed a new apartment complex in Houston, a construction worker found himself in pretty much the last place he'd want to: trapped on a ledge, feet from the flames. As he waited, helplessly, to be rescued, others waited with him. The construction site was across the street from an office building, and workers flocked to the windows to see the drama unfold. One of them filmed itYou can see some of their images reflected in the video that resulted, above.

Things ended as well as they could have for the trapped man; he escaped, and no injuries were reported as a result of the fire. In the video, the scene playing out on that ledge vaguely foreshadows this outcome: The person whose life is in danger—who is standing, trapped, as flames lick at the walls next to him—seems relatively calm. 

What we hear, instead, is the commentary—the exchanges of people who are watching the scene unfold from a safe distance. And that commentary is … banal. Deeply (and almost profoundly) so. In the same way that your commentary, or mine, might well be were we watching the same scene. Here are some of the sentiments expressed by the onlookers of this terrifyingly unfolding drama: 

"OMG."

"Oh, Jesus."

"This guy is on the frickin' ledge." 

"He can't get out, 'cuz he can't get out the door."

"You can feel the heat."

"Look at this, oh my God." 

"Unbelievable."

"Oh God, oh God, oh God—oh, my God."

"Look at the glass melting up there."

"They need to get him!"

"Get closer to him!"

"Hell, he can jump from there—I mean, good grief."

"I think that we probably should be going."

"Hey, what about the guy? What about this guy?"
"They got him." 

"Damn, I was gonna get an apartment over there, too."
"Not now."
"They're cheaper now." 

This is not to criticize the people watching the scene unfold—the people whose commentary, almost literally, upstages the drama of the burning building and the man trapped on its ledge. Again, my own comments, on witnessing the same scene, would probably sound similar. (Though I do like to flatter myself that I'd save the "cheap apartment" hilarity until after the threat of a man being burned alive had officially ended.) 

It's worth noting, though, what the real estate humor here hints at: the chaos of tragedy as it's experienced by real people, in real time. The confusion that is so aptly captured by a video like this, shot on a smartphone and posted to YouTube. The same kind of caught chaos we saw with that fertilizer plant in Texas. And with that asteroid exploding in the skies above Russia. And with, for that matter, the Hindenburg disaster.

Compare those ad hoc representations of tragedy to our more traditional ways of knowing tragedy as an aesthetic, and video-taped, reality: through moving images provided by TV news, by Hollywood, by professionals who are trained to keep their mouths shut. On YouTube, as shot by amateurs on the scene, our experience of disaster instead features a Greek chorus of "OMGs" and "Unbelievables." More and more of our portrays of catastrophe—and of the dramas that prevent catastrophe—are now mediated in this way: by other people. People who are shocked and scared and empathetic and, in the best and worst of ways, unthinking. People who, even if they tried, couldn't keep quiet. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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