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Being a Witness ain’t What it used to Be

Seeing is Believing


There is a particular importance placed upon seeing an event unfold before your eyes.  This could be as simple as your grandfather’s story when you were a kid—how he reeled in that twenty pound bass but let him go because it was “too majestic, or some other B.S.  Unfortunately, nobody was around to see it.  As people, we need to see something to truly believe that it happened.  This is not a new need, but rather one that has existed for centuries, but the technology of today allows it to happen on a much grander scale.

Bearing witness is an integral part of American culture.  Our justice system relies on witness testimony to determine the innocence of those on trial, and at a point before DNA evidence, was the only source of evidence in criminal trials, thus being extremely important.


Where were you when ____?


With the evolution of media technology, more and more people began to be witnesses, and being a witness as an event developed became quite important.  Unfortunately, the majority of events that spark the “Where were you…” questions are painful ones.  The first event which comes to mind comes from the generation that raised the millennials, and that is the assassination Martin Luther King Jr.  I’ve had teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles all talk to me when I was a child about how they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned of Dr. King’s death.  Maybe it’s that pain triggers our memory the best, but the important thing is that they remembered, and everyone remembered.  Despite not being directly involved in the event, the event resonates as significant in each individual.  Another event of a different note that everyone bore witness to was the moon landing.




The broadcast of the moon landing is iconic.  Millions watched as Walter Cronkite broke down in tears as he watched the first man walk on the Moon.  As Cronkite witnessed the moon walk for the first time, so did millions of Americans.  To bear witness to an event at first, one needed to be there. But with the emergence of the radio and later the television more and more people can witness an event.  Even before the T.V. the now infamous broadcast ofWar of the Worlds in the 1930s led people to believe that they were witnessing an alien invasion—with some even taking drastic measures.  The power of media expanded the audience actually capable of witnessing the event.

To me, the most powerful example what we’ll call the “Where were you complex” is the September 11th attacks.  The attacks on 9/11 were the first time that a major event occurred in which the Internet was at least a semi-viable source.  Before, to witness an event the options were television, radio, and in person.  With the Internet emerging, things are not limited to what a television station would air.  9/11 relied on handheld video from the start.  Once the first plane struck the tower, people got their video cameras out and were filming the towers—giving the people unprecedented coverage of the worst national tragedy in decades.  For my childhood, the 9/11 attacks became the “Where were you” moment.  As the Internet became a more and more dominant form of media, the personal videos from 9/11 surfaced—giving new views on the tragedy.  The September 11th attacks were the first time that I could remember that millions of Americans were frozen watching the television, and all that were watching stood helplessly as the second plane slammed into the second tower.  We were live witnesses to a tragedy, everyone saw what unfolded together.



This was bearing witness digitally, and the evolution of the Internet would serve to expand this witnessing.

Fast-forward ten years to spring 2011.  As the spring semester was wrapping up, news flashed on Facebook—Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I immediately turned on the news and watched as the story unfolded.  After seeing the president’s speech.  I found out that students were gathering on the field.  It was a time of celebration as hundreds of students came together to share this monumental moment together.  Acts like this one echoed across the nation, and to the surprise of the older generations, it was the college-aged millenials that displayed the most open happiness and celebration at the death of bin Laden.  As children this generation had lost some innocence at the hands of bin Laden, and as such, when the news of his death spread through our social networks like Facebook and Twitter, there was much rejoicing.  Around the country we were able to witness the acts of jubilation from our peers, and share our own, all while the acts were happening live.

Social media sites like Facebook open the door for witnessing on unprecedented scales.  Especially now since streaming has become so easy.  Witnessing a live event has become as easy as clicking on a link, rather than relying on the event to be played on television.  This is pretty prevalent in the sporting world.  In the past twenty years, one used to have to rely on the newspaper and on T.V. for sports highlights of out-of-town teams.  For example, in the home run record chase of 1998 people scrambled to watch Sportscenter to see if Mark McGwire had hit another home run.  Now if one wants to watch an out-of-town team, there are a plethora of links to live stream the event available.



Imagine if the whole country had been able to watch the at bat from their computers.  This was arguably the most important moment in sports at the time, and many people couldn’t find out until after—instead of being able to witness it outright.

Streaming has a much larger impact than sports, however.  During the winter of 2014, political unrest bubbled in Ukraine.  From the start of the movement, there was little airtime on major U.S. news station, which instead focused on other happenings in the world—even as there were violent clashes between protesters and police.  What the television news neglected, the Internet did not, and links were posted to live cameras capturing the unfolding of a revolution.  This pure, uncensored feed allowed Internet wanderers thousands of miles away to witness history in Ukraine.

Essentially, the middle man has been cut out in the way we witness the world’s events.  It has become a first-person experience again.  There is no reporter telling of the events that are occurring, or had just occurred; instead, we get to see the events unfold through the camera as if it were through our own eyes.  The advent of digital media has given every person the agency to become a witness to the next great event.  When the event that defines this generation occurs—if it hasn’t already—we will be able to tell our children and grandchildren that we were there, and that we saw it happen. The best part will be, we won’t be lying.



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