Epic Fail Book Helps Us Understand Our Insatiable Appetite for Awful News

social media woman

Pink slime, an Egyptian muscleman with freakish biceps, and horse-burgers: what makes news go viral?

Ages back, the day after actress Natalie Wood died, I got two phone calls from my brothers – each on an opposite American coast – with the same awful joke*.  How could something so bad get near-instant attention of people 3,000 miles apart?  This was pre-internet, and those scratchy calls came in on landlines. Decades later, the phenomenon still baffles me: why is it so easy to get folks incited over absurdities when it’s impossible to get them to, say, unite over recycling, embrace Meatless Mondays or quit plastic bags?

Technology is swell. But its social aspect can be likened to an underachieving middle-schooler. It’s an insidious time drainer; a pathogen that infects us with a perpetual stream of e-news that we absorb and instantly Digg, Tweet, or reshare on Facebook. Each simple click exponentially destroys human productivity while casting us all as snarky commentators on the day’s World’s Biggest Joke.

This is different from celebrity worship.  It’s an obsession with acts of cultural cluelessness, pounding us in endless waves of media rolling through television and the internet.  Why is it that so many different individuals, in different parts of the world, all latch on to the same media crapola?

Ironically (while online), I stumbled upon Epic Fail, an e-book from online magazine The Millions, in which author Mark O’Connell sets out to answer this question.  By his own description, he tracks the phenomenon where “what Marshall McLuhan famously referred to as the Global Village now anoints a new Global Village Idiot every other week.”

Surely you’ve seen a picture of “Monkey Jesus“.  That infamously botched restoration of a 19th-century fresco plunked it’s creator, a hapless Spanish septuagenarian, into the eye of an e-media hurricane. Does anyone not know about Rebecca Black’s chart-topping YouTube disaster, “Friday“, a teenager’s birthday gift gone way wrong? O’Connell contends that this voyeuristic behavior (you decide if it’s fun or sinister) has been around for ages: even Shakespeare had a go.

But what draws us to these stories? And what does our seemingly insatiable appetite for the cringe-worthy in others say about ourselves?

Mark O’Connell is an Irish writer who lives in Dublin where he teaches contemporary fiction at Trinity College.  His investigation of the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon is entertaining and insightful, and explains why my two kids, separated by ten years and two continents, both latch on to the same dubious e-media.  It’s insight well worth the two buck price tag, you’ll think twice the next time someone passes along a link to the latest “epic fail.”

Maybe understanding the mechanics behind mass human attraction to minor news can help harness support for earth-critical causes.  At a minimum, this is an e-book, a read that won’t harm a tree.

*Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat? Because she knew she’d wash up on shore.

Image of woman texting from Shutterstock

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