Yesterday, a podcast called Content Mines put forward a theory about the experience of seeing images of war in social feeds like TikTok, saying that it creates a “structural dissonance”: an “inherent weirdness of viewing the horrors of real life through the trivializing structures of the internet.” This fits with the prefatory remarks that media commentators often seem to feel obliged to make in their analyses, that it is uncanny, shocking, surprising to see war and its consequences — the human suffering and death, the wanton destruction — juxtaposed with catchy music, dances, and performances. War is too serious to be aestheticized and dropped into our feeds like any other piece of content, intermixed between videos of food cooking and cats jumping, playing to the algorithm in search of virality. It's an old, familiar concern. Their posture here is like John Berger’s in the fourth episode of Ways of Seeing (1972), when he declares “this culture is mad” after flipping through a Sunday newspaper to see images of Pakistani refugees interspersed with ads for whiskey and luxury bath products. There is a flattening of different moral contexts, of the commercial function of media and the humanitarian function of empathizing with suffering.  But why would anyone expect that ordinary people (who are not newspaper publishers) wouldn't process the experience of war through the same feeds they use every day? While it might seem strange to see people make social media posts about war, particularly highly aestheticized ones that use meme formats, jokes, songs, filters, edits, and other aspects of the TikTok toolkit, wouldn’t it be stranger if they didn’t? To speak through images about what one is thinking or experiencing is an entirely ordinary way to react to what’s happening. It is not a distortion or exploitation of “what’s really happening” but a routine part of it. And why would commentators find social platforms to be “structurally dissonant” with war when they are already so well-tuned toward the visually striking and conflict-oriented? Should civilians in war zones be expected to stop joking and memeing and posing and instead suffer in discreet silence, objects of pity for distant observers’ consumption? It is not automatically disrespectful or voyeuristic to consume their content from afar, or to appreciate and understand it on an aesthetic level. They are not passively recording themselves; they speak through these recordings with their own voices and personalities through aesthetic choices, working the algorithms even as they are worked by them. Some of the viral tiktoks, like this one, are from travel bloggers who are juxtaposing pretty, filtered videos of their earlier travels in Ukraine with the current images of war in many of those same spots. Other stylized videos are similar to Adam Curtis scenes where explosions are set to pop music. They cut against the grain of the platforms’ marketing of themselves as sites for breezy content and depoliticized “fun,” but are still quite honest to what viral broadcast social platforms actually afford: shock, wit, tugged heartstrings, dissensus staged and edited to be as compelling as possible. That some of the war footage isn’t factually correct or is actually manipulated video game footage doesn’t matter much to why these clips circulate; the point is not facts but feelings. Implicit in the surprise and shock at seeing war aestheticized on social media is the idea that suffering should be documented only through a strict photo-journalistic lens, in images that take on a metonymic quality, evoking the larger official narrative or capturing some universal sentiment lurking behind the specifics. But the conversational images, the rhetorically staged video, of social media also capture additional aspects of the lived experience of war, which includes the full range of emotions: boredom, confusion, anxiety, absurdity, and disavowal, as well as terror, resilience, and grief. As some commentators have noted, the underlying formulas for social media posts remain constant whether the posts are of war or not; this creates an empathetic link between Ukrainians and other users who share that frame of reference. Some of the these posts rely on music, dance, and gesture rather than speech or text, allowing them to transcend language barriers. Otherness is diminished. Doing a meme dance in front of a destroyed building says that you are like the people watching, sharing an understanding of the meta-communication of what song works in a video and why. It expresses that you want to be having fun, that you are living through hell, that you are still a person trying to get by, and that you want others to know and understand what is happening. “Posting through it” humanizes the people suffering under the conditions of war for outsiders who can at least relate to that response, if not the conditions that prompted it. For outsiders, consuming war content can be a matter of taking an emotional interest in the world, vicariously experiencing what looks like resilience and feels like solidarity. It meets the expectation that we will be able to participate somehow in whatever is trending, regardless of whether we are well-informed about it. (If you wanted to be informed and not distracted or indulged, would you really be looking at feeds?) If someone else’s suffering begins to be too overwhelming, one can fall back on skepticism, on the idea that everything is probably fake disinformation, or manufactured for the algorithms anyway — a passive mistrust that makes all the footage go down a little easier. We know we are being tricked and manipulated by the platform in exchange for being entertained, but the flow dissolves the need to account for any dissonance. A worry that has long been attached to social media is that it proliferates contrived images that somehow spoil or obscure reality. Posts of war would seem to shatter that façade, if only they were more documentary or journalistic. But the everyday posts about life during wartime do provide for the viewer a bracing reassertion of the real, not because they disrupt the mundanity of everyday life in feeds with tragedy but because they validate the idea that social media use is itself real life, an inescapable part of reality and not an escape from it. Seeing the harsh truth of destruction and terror through the lens of virality and post crafting helps redeem that lens, through which we already see so much of our own experience. The intermixing of the silly and important, fun and destructive, performance and material, are the contradictions of life, before and with social media feeds. The dream of a strict segmentation, presumably under some unmentioned authority, would create for us far more structural dissonance.

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