Paula Deen, World War Z Zombies, and Real-Time Communications with Digital Pitchforks

Paula Deen

Keeping the media swarm going – today’s stimuli on Paula Deen

What do Paula Deen and the zombies of the movie WORLD WAR Z have in common? The evolution of the “virus” of communication in real-time.

Last weekend, I saw the new Brad Pitt movie WORLD WAR Z. Even before the zombie apocalypse became routine, I was a fan of zombie books and movies, particularly THE WALKING DEAD. Not for the gore but for the metaphor. As I wrote in my own upcoming book, THE SECRET LIVES OF LIBRARIANS (which is waiting for me to give the go-ahead to publish the rest of the oh-my-gods long novel):

 Drusilla stopped pacing until she had my attention again.  “And if vampires don’t show us how much we crave eternal youth and escape from death and frailty, then zombies are our spiritual surrender to the fight we cannot win.  The popularity of a zombie apocalypse?  Do you know what that is?  We are identifying more with the zombies than the zombie killers or perhaps with the zombie killer who will inevitably, hopelessly, be turned.  We are all stumbling through life, shuffling and moaning from meeting to meeting, from expectation to expectation. We are all dead inside, forced by our survival instincts to eat food that’s been genetically altered for years or doesn’t even qualify as real food. We exist in artificial light, breathing artificial air, eating artificial food, thinking the artificial thoughts the news media shovels over every airwave.  We go through the motions of choices in our careers and in our passions, but we’ve already forfeited our real choices and replaced passion with busy-ness and self-loathing while we all are slaves to expectations and mortgages and reputations.”

So, of course, I caught the newest zombie movie on opening weekend just to see how those zombies differed from mine and still matched Drusilla’s philosophical discussion about our culture’s fascination with the undead.

—- Slight spoilers below, but only in regard to the uniqueness of these zombies vs others on TV and in movies; no movie plot points—-

Even though World War Z had received some bad press as a movie–I admit I haven’t read the book–I did enjoy it.  These zombies are like many other versions in that they are victims of a virus and bites but different mainly because they are fast.  In fact, they swarm.  I found that intriguing.  The idea of a fast-spreading virus that uses the human body to spread itself.  The WWZ zombies acted much like creatures of nature–the dormancy until stimulated, the aggression when acted upon aggressively, the swarming attacks.  If you’ve ever been around wasp nests, ants, or just watched how nature acts and reacts, it’s an interesting premise.  Even the zombies behind glass reminded me of sick but malicious birds or rabid animals in their straining, chirping, clucking mannerisms.

Over the next few days, while listening to the REAL-TIME MARKETING AND PR audiobook by David Meerman Scott, I was also watching the news of Paula Deen’s alleged racist remarks and mistreatment of her employees.  Scott says early on in his book that media attention occurs in a bell curve with (I’m paraphrasing) a few people jumping on the news early, then many people responding and glomming on as a result of social media and news media, followed by a trickle of attention.

I’ve seen it enough on Facebook recently to recognize exactly what Scott is talking about.   I have my ear to the ground, so to speak, enough that I often hear about or read about something 3 or 4 days before I see it in all my friends’ news feeds.  Then it trickles off, like that bell curve visual graph in my head.  It also doesn’t have to be true, like the fake Russian Tampax commercial from MOVIE 43 that was posted as a “real ad” by otherwise credible Facebook pages and garnered thousands of upset comments by people who thought it was a real ad that had been banned in the U.S. or the pagan new curator who posted a satirical link about NSA and the FBI spying on witches as truth.  It doesn’t matter how many people comment repeatedly that the story is untrue and provide proof because the next person to read the headline will react and share without bothering to research the source or perform any further investigation, particularly if the outlet seems reliable.  It’s like gossip told among trusted friends:  the word is out there and cannot be summoned back into its box.  True or false, real-time connections via news media and social media turn every snippet into a worldwide conversation with an instant response.

When this happens, it does resemble a swarm.  If the target of the swarm reacts in a wrong way or in a way that provides entertainment, the swarm becomes more agitated and aggressive.  I’ve seen some train wrecks of people trying to defend bad behavior by answering a few quick stings on their Facebook pages or blogs with flippant remarks or comments that just proved what bad customer service is.  Those are the ones you read and you want to tell the person answering comments to please, please, please be quiet.  They live up to the old adage about “Better to keep your mouth shut and be believed an idiot than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

I’ve seen others, too, who became victims of swarms of angry commenters who know only part of the story or the part that a disgruntled employee or customer is telling, and the company cannot say much in response because of legal obligations not to divulge what the complainant did.  I’ve been there myself, too, and felt about as powerless as though I were crossing a wide field with nowhere to hide and a swarm descending on me and jabbing me no matter how fast or how far I ran.  The swarm cannot be reasoned with, they’re not really interested in hearing all sides, and they’ve usually already formed an opinion that’s not going to change by the time they post their first link to a news story or comment on story about it or retweet it.   They are reacting based on stimuli, based on what they believe to have happened, whether or not it has.  The more people responding as part of the swarm, the more reinforced that opinion is.  It becomes mob mentality, when most of the time, whatever the trending story is actually had no affect on our daily lives at all.

My thoughts on swarms and the digital pitchforks of real-time communication via media and social networks may sound like a defense of Paula Deen.  It’s not.  I don’t like Paula Deen.  I never have.  I can’t say why, nor do I know why I don’t like her.  And I’m Southern and love butter, so go figure.  She’s just never held any appeal for me.  I don’t know all of what she’s done, but I also don’t really care.  I roll my eyes at her apologies because she’s making matters worse and because I think she’s good at making excuses more than making amends.

But if there’s any good news for Paula Deen in all this, it’s that eventually, she’ll be over the hump of the bell curve and only a few people will follow her story.  They, like all swarms, will have  overwhelmed one story’s subject and moved on to devour the next.  It’s what swarms do.  But they are fickle and unless they are fed constantly with entertainment in one wide open field, they will find another subject to focus on soon enough and forget all about the bones they’ve picked clean.