Review: The Thread (2015)

News meets new media

The Thread’s case study – the Boston Bombings – lacked the apocalyptic punctuation of a 9/11, but its target was markedly symbolic. The sporting event: a quintessential bread-and-circus supplement to the US mythos of competitive spirit, ruptured by bomb blasts. Street spectator’s elation became horror in a heartbeat. The attack was a defiant gesture, perpetrated by two Islamic extremist brothers. However, instead of surveying the political dimensions of the attack, The Thread concentrates on the nature of online news aggregation and its relationship to traditional media.

The documentary comprises of a series of interviews: news-hungry tech-geeks – both Buzz feed reporters and odd, solitary types – fixated on potential suspects. An uneasy alliance is formed between what Joel Kotkin calls the new ‘clerisy’ class (young, socially liberal professionals working in academia, media and tech-related fields), and cynically minded boomers of the print media, once the lone wolves start pointing fingers and playing detective on Reddit forums and other online channels.

One interviewee glowingly refers to Reddit as ‘well vetted gossip’. Forum speculation – vetted or not – leads to dead ends and false accusations. Sunil Tripathi’s case – a high-profile suspect – ironically committed suicide before the bombing took place. Media coverage laid shame on his grieving family, resulting in some sheepish basement dwellers retreating to their caves after hasty accusations. In the collective clamour, self-styled online detectives, itching for 15 minutes of e-fame, is a recipe for damaging, ill-founded claims.

The Thread detects two cultural phenomena the internet makes possible. In a race to make sense of an endless supply of images and text, attention-spans and critical skills are compromised. Due to the immediacy of the medium, formulating theories and finger pointing with uncritical abandon and insufficient evidence enacts as a Pavlov-style response to breaking stories. Chaos informs chaos.

Secondly, a ‘net hero’ environment is fostered whereby fictional influence (Metal Gear Solid, 24, Homeland et al, the solitary geeks even talks of his/her involvement in ‘online gaming’ speak; referring to being ‘stationed’ at ‘base camp’) intersects with a strong desire for recognition through legally dubious activities. From listening in on PBS scanners, to scouring CCTV footage, the incentive to solve the case becomes an obsession.

Aside from discerning these postmodern pathologies as the encroaching standard, The Thread does well in framing the animosities and blame-shifting politics sections the media dabble in. Professional journalists criticise the lone wolves post-publication. Once the loners make misguided accusations, the journalists build their stories on the back of these wayward assumptions, often setup as pseudo-corrective dramatic turns in a larger media narrative.

Because online journalism rides the latest techno-economic cycle of innovation, a collective uncertainty permeates its evolution. Change is incessant in the way reporting and analysis unfolds. The proximity and detail of events as they’re processed, reach a phantasmal level. Although the younger generation condemn traditional media as dead and buried, it survives as a husk to be populated with the techno-entrails of new forms of feedback running into one another.

Media interaction begins to infect both subjectivity and what we can know (and how we can know it). The distinction between fiction and reality is blurred, as onlookers are positioned both inside and outside of the aftermath of critical events. While old media might have taken an authorative, sober stance on proceedings, it, too, is caught up in the mania of uncensored, conspiratorial interfaces. In a voyeuristic society where surveillance and counter-spying is the natural mode of existence, immediate mediation defines human experience.

The Thread is an intriguing, multi-faceted viewing. It’s a looking glass held against the cultural and societal effects technology has on both the reporting and experience of mediated news and aggregation.

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