4 Ways the Face-Eater Zombie Craze Proves the Media's Broken
Over Memorial Day weekend, a Florida man (who was profoundly disturbed) stripped off all of his clothes, pounced on a sleeping homeless man and spent 18 minutes trying to eat his face completely off.
Then on Tuesday, May 29, Cracked.com, a (sort of) popular comedy website that publishes silly, informative list articles (garnished with dick jokes), had one of its best traffic days of all time.
I'm not just bringing up two random stories. These two seemingly disparate things are directly related, and I'm going to explain to you how.
The Internet's Terrible at Reporting on Things
So here's what happened first: Twitter is stupid.
The least we can do is buy it a helmet.
Or, wait, no. That didn't happen first. What happened first was that a man ate another man's face, and then Twitter was stupid. When a man's brain broke and voices in his head or chemicals in his body or spirits in his soul convinced him that he needed to take off all of his clothes and attack a stranger until he was tragically gunned down by police officers who had no other choice, "zombie apocalypse" became trending on social networking site Twitter.
I didn't have that reaction, personally, even though this website has written about zombies more than a few times (and even though I've personally written about them ). I read a news report about a crazy man on a drug called bath salt that news reports are calling "the new LSD," and I thought, "Holy shit, that man's brain must have been profoundly diseased to make him do that. Also, I feel terrible for that poor guy who woke up to getting his face eaten by a stranger; that must have been terrible. Also everyone was naked, and that probably means something. And hang on, they're calling a drug that makes you violent and aggressive and face-hungry 'the new LSD'? Either I've been taking the wrong kinds of acid or these news reporters don't actually know what LSD does, because people on actual acid NEVER try to eat each other's faces. I wonder if I should write to someone about how we're really irresponsible in tossing around labels, and that we're giving LSD a bad name. Anyway, there's a lot of information here, but mainly, this whole thing is horrible and tragic." That's how I processed the situation. And that's why it was strange when I saw that Twitter and Tumblr and bloggers were all throwing around zombie jokes immediately.
"A tragedy! Quick, to the Meme Vault!"
That was everyone's instant response? Should I feel like the crazy one because I DIDN'T immediately think of zombies when I read that story?
But it doesn't matter if I'm crazy. What matters is this dude in Florida was, and the Internet decided to put that craziness in the framework of a zombie apocalypse. And that's fine. That's just what the Internet does.
That and add cats to every-damn-thing.
Suddenly, Similar Stories Started to Surface!
After the face-eating in Miami was reported, a bunch of other stories popped up on the Internet, stories that were similar only in that they also featured disturbed people doing awful things with human body parts. There was the man in New Jersey who cut his stomach open and tried to throw his intestines at the police officers who entered his home. The man in Baltimore who ate the brain and heart of a missing person. The chef in Japan who fed his cooked genitals to the people in his restaurant. These stories and others like them (enough that one blog has started diligently collecting all of them in one place) all started showing up on the Internet and adding to this mystery.
Why are all of these horribly gruesome and violent (but otherwise unrelated) events happening right now, of all times? Why has it only been happening in the last month?
Bath salts again?
The boring truth is probably that they haven't been. I'm not saying these stories didn't happen -- they all did -- I'm saying that stuff like this almost definitely happens all over the world, all the time. Remember last year, when everyone thought the world was ending because birds kept dying? Five thousand birds dropped out of the sky in Arkansas, and then thousands of dead fish washed up on the shores of the Arkansas River, and then 500 birds died suddenly in Louisiana, and then a bunch of other birds died in a bunch of other places all over the world, all within the same two-month span.
At the time, we all freaked out, because it was similar to a lot of end-of-the-world prophecies, which would have been terrible for us, and it was also similar to the plot of The Core, which was even worse. The truth, we later learned, was that some weird bird epidemic was killing all of these birds; this was just how life goes. Birds die in bunches, all of the time, all over the world, for what looks like no reason. The difference is that we're never looking for these stories, but last year, we were. And boooooy, did we find them.
"Multiple birds found dead from gunshot wounds. Suicide or apocalypse to blame."
That, I imagine, is what's happening now. One insane news story catches everyone's attention with an impossible to ignore headline ("Man Shot to Death by Police While Attempting to Eat Another Man's Face"). Once that happens, any online journalist hungry for traffic is going to look for similar stories around the world (of which there are always plenty, because there will always be disturbed people in the world), and try to find a link between their story and the crazy popular Miami story. Because then they're not just running a story about "a man in Maryland who ate another man's heart and brains," they're writing a story titled "Another Trend in the Bizarre ZOMBIE EPIDEMIC THAT'S SWEEPING AMERICA!"
That's just smart journalism. You hitch your story to a more popular story and try to connect them. This doesn't mean that people weren't murdering and/or eating people in horrific ways two years ago; it just means we weren't looking for that kind of story back then.
"Face-eating? No thanks, Internet. I'm in more of a 'bear attack' mood."
Reporting on the Internet Is Terrible
I touched upon this a little with the "hitch your story to a bigger story" bit in the earlier entry, but the awful well of Internet journalism runs even deeper than that. But before I explain that, we need to refresh ourselves on the timeline of this "media event."
- A man eats another man's face because he's crazy.
- Jokers on the Internet make zombie jokes, because the Internet's the Internet.
- More crazy shit gets reported on and attached to this story.
- Jokers on the Internet makes even MORE zombie jokes.
At this point, we could have let the whole zombie thing die with the jokers. But this is the Internet we're talking about, and the Internet is a business driven by traffic. Every online journalist knows that everyone on the Internet is going to be talking about and searching for zombie-apocalypse-related information. And that's why every online journalist, whenever they covered the Miami face-eating story, decided to include "zombie" or "apocalypse" or "zombie apocalypse" in every single story they wrote.
That's a screen grab of a search not for "zombie apocalypse," but for "Miami man eats face." Even though I'm not searching for anything to do with zombies, I will not be able to find a single news article that doesn't contain the word "zombie" in it. Now, with all of the zombie-related stories out there, we've turned this whole thing from "a bunch of jokes about zombies" to "conspiracy theories about zombies."
And that's just how Internet journalism works. It's sort of terrible. Internet reporting is so completely page-view-driven that it doesn't really matter if your EXCITING HEADLINE is bullshit. You write what people are going to be searching for, and right now, people are searching for zombie-apocalypse-related information. You'll get more hits if you mention zombies, so who cares if it's incorrect, or journalistically irresponsible, or fucking stupid, because zombies aren't real and you're supposed to be a news outlet, not a traffic-chasing blog?! Who cares? In online journalism, you go where the traffic goes.
Journalism means never having to say you're sorry. Or fact-checking.
And how do I know that, over the last week, everyone's been searching for "zombie apocalypse"?
Because Cracked Had One of Its Best Traffic Days Ever
It's true. A comedy website that, until this instant, hadn't covered the Miami face-eating story at all, was suddenly pulling in a ton of traffic. At the office, we all scratched our heads for a while, until we realized where all of this traffic was going to. An article about zombies that my co-worker David Wong wrote.
That's the Internet. A man goes crazy and attacks another man, and the Internet turns it into a zombie joke. And then online journalists turn it into a zombie conspiracy, which drives the most paranoid or bored members of the Internet to read everything they can about zombies, which is why a 5-year-old article on a comedy website becomes one of the most popular and talked about articles on the Internet for a second time.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's senior writer (ladies) and will eat his co-workers' faces for $5 a head (Internet journalists).
For more from Dan, check out The 4 Worst Things About Writing for the Internet and The Betty White Meme: When The Internet Stopped Making Sense.