Viral, Yet Ephemeral: Death On Your Cellphone

a cellphone screen with a collection of social networking app icons
Image by Microsiervos (CC BY 2.0)

Writing in Real Life magazine, Juli Min explores the way WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, has become a place to both mourn death and share graphic videos of the moment itself—a place where users post “viral videos of death as we create an endless stream of idle gossip.” What does this mean broadly, and what does it mean in a country where all data is subject to government monitoring?

Tencent WeChat accounts, like Facebook accounts, are technically leased to their users. The data and photos do not belong solely to individuals in the end, as Tencent maintains the rights to copy, use, and forward whatever is shared on the platform. Accordingly, Tencent’s servers themselves are leased from the Chinese government, subjecting all messaging data to government monitoring and surveillance. A viral video of a mother’s death by escalator will happily make the rounds, whereas a video of a Tibetan monk burning himself in protest will be shuttered by government monitors — “we” are allowed to gawk at the spectacle of death, but not the spectacle of resistance. In 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, prescient founder of the Situationist International, wrote: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Aside from the work of mediation, he wrote, spectacle also allowed for the proliferation and control of the masses and degraded authentic life and experience.

Monitoring is both the source and the function of internet spectacle.

Read the essay