My Manchester

The events themselves were gut-wrenchingly distant from the city I know

With everything going on in the world right now, it seems almost superfluous to say the recent attack at an arena in Manchester, my hometown, took me off-guard. With our digital technologies overflowing with connections and information, we are immersed in in tragedies, every day, and we may learn of them almost as soon as they happen. Nevertheless, in spite of this, we never get used to it. I found out about the attack from a push notification on a news app — words on a screen in my pocket, but such big, heavy words.

Seeing the word Manchester pop up on my screen invoked a feeling of affection and familiarity, but the words that followed brought not just horror and sadness, but homesick horror, homesick fear. The hashtag trended, the well-wishes came flooding in. Part of me felt almost guilty — this attack generated more empathy than so many statistically “worse” tragedies in other parts of the world. That supposedly global network we have built through digital technologies cares a lot more about some parts of the world than others. Car bombs in Kabul, the ongoing war in Syria, famine and conflict in Yemen — our capacity for empathy has its limits, though we love to think we’re more well-connected and worldly in our attitudes than ever.

It’s a strange feeling of dislocation, watching something so deeply unfamiliar taking place in somewhere so intimate to me, mediated through screens, across time zones

It’s a strange feeling of dislocation, watching something so deeply unfamiliar taking place in somewhere so intimate to me, mediated through screens, across time zones and places. I grew up in Manchester, but I’ve lived outside the UK for the past eight years. Nowadays, through my professional work, I spend a lot of time thinking about the role of technology in our society. And as an immigrant, news from many of my friends and family comes to me mostly via communication technologies, rather than in person as it used to. In many ways, I often don’t feel like I’m really missing out on too much, thanks to video calls, messaging apps, and easy, high-quality internet access.

In reality, though, that’s not quite right. I’m not taking part in those events my friends and family share with me myself; I’m just learning about them, and there’s a difference. My perception is built upon what I’m told, not what I experience myself, but sometimes that can be almost hard to remember. There used to be a time delay before we learned of news from faraway places, even a time delay in the transmission of a voice in long-distance telephone calls. That slight hesitation could feel like an aural reflection of geographic distance, which gave a sense of perspective, a reminder of the gap between learning of an event and taking part directly. These boundaries have become ever blurrier, and now experiences can happen in a multitude of ways, regardless of our geographic location. Nowadays, interruptions come in the form of algorithmic curation which breaks up what we see, inserts what it thinks we need, and changes how we experience major life events in ways we can’t control. That’s easy to forget, though – our algorithmically curated feeds provide 360° views, multiple photos and videos from different perspectives, and encourage us to think of the view they provide as all that’s needed to feel like we were there. Events of huge magnitude come to us in the same way as tiny, inconsequential ones; on our screens, inhibiting our ability to truly understand the magnitude of what’s happening.

The last terrorist attack we had in Manchester was in 1996. At the time, I was not old enough to really understand what had happened, but I can remember broad brushstrokes: breaking news on the television, announcements at school, overheard conversations that I understood little of, and a halt in our family visits to Manchester city center. This time, my phone took on the role of meting out information to me as I scrolled through to see, almost in real time, what was happening in my city. Knowing it was in real time made it feel treacherously close, but the events themselves were gut-wrenchingly distant from the city I know.

From afar, I watched the news develop while my friends and family in the UK slept, and wondered if I should be looking for someone in particular who might have been at an Ariana Grande concert — the children of friends, or their younger siblings. The combination of familiarity with unfamiliarity was jarring: I recognized the Manchester Arena (or the Manchester Evening News Arena, as I know it), where I saw my first gig as a teenager, and many more after. On my phone, it was filled not with excited teenagers but tears and blood and fear.

That supposedly global, digital network cares a lot more about some parts of the world than others. Car bombs in Kabul, the ongoing war in Syria, famine and conflict in Yemen — our capacity for empathy has its limits

I remembered my parents dropping me off, the overwhelming crowds and the crush to get out, the assigned time to meet at the pick-up point, and how my parents would have worried had I not turned up on time. The parents of concert-goers last week went through worries of a magnitude multiple orders greater. As I felt my own closeness to the city, I imagined the horror of scanning through those images, looking for loved ones, reading through descriptions and wondering if the person mentioned is the person you care about.

Those parents probably watched their phones as I did, as unverified but gory details appeared, many from people not thinking of the information that would be important for the public interest, but instead getting caught up in the social media frenzy of rumors and lurid and graphic details, and the sense of attention, relevance, and connection to an event that sharing them can bring. Heartbreaking posts are eminently shareable, and fact-checking individual anecdotes takes time, if verification is even thought of at all. The attention around an attack can be transformed in a thousand ways, and not everyone vying for attention has the best intentions for the people affected in mind.

There’s no way of knowing or isolating the motives behind those social media posts, no way to determine the degree to which they are attempts at making a tweet go viral to boost one’s ego or simply getting word out about an important incident. Is that, in fact, what terrorists are aiming for? Attention, multiplied thousands of times, not just by newspapers and on television but also refracted and redirected on social media, inviting a kind of participation in the act’s repercussions? Each new set of details, each tweet complete with “RT please” made me wonder, Is this a hoax or an attempt to get more likes or followers?

Being thousands of miles away, the closest I can get to knowing what’s there is through digital technologies and contact with my friends and family. Those technologies give me the illusion of being closer, of knowing what’s going on, but it’s actually just a sliver of the reality, rife with bias and well-hidden limitations. What I see on social media isn’t a true picture of what the city of Manchester is experiencing right now; it reflects just the subsection of society who have access to phones and Internet and who choose to engage on the same platforms as I do. And beyond that, there’s nothing to ensure that any of what I see online is actually from people in Manchester. Attacks and tragedies, where information is valuable, can be hotspots for disinformation to spread too: In the heat of the moment, a desire for timely information seems to take precedence over a desire for true information. Was my personalized media ecosystem giving the tragedy and the response to it an uncanny coherence? Was I even experiencing the same event others were experiencing?

That dislocation, it seems, is everywhere: between how we like to perceive ourselves, and how we perceive those around us. What I see, of course, isn’t what you see. I can’t know to what extent or precisely how my engagement with social media platforms has changed what is shown to me, but I do know that it limits how and how much I can engage with my hometown from afar. I watched as people who probably never spent a second in their lives thinking about Manchester, my Manchester, shared opinions on what was happening there, why it happened, what people were feeling. This isn’t the way I wanted people to learn about the city I grew up in. Once, when I thought of St. Ann’s Square, I’d think of the German Christmas Markets, and summers spent hanging out nearby. Now the images of St. Ann’s Square covered with flowers and messages to those killed feel totally alien to me. I can see the images and read the online media, but I can’t get a feeling for the atmosphere, the conversations on the trams in town, the small talk in shops.

People who disagree with me, or people who think people like me shouldn’t even be in the UK, are not just unfamiliar and unknown to me; they’re entirely invisible. But they live in my hometown

Traditional media outlets tell me that feelings of Islamophobia and incidents of hate crimes are increasing, both in the UK and where I am right now. But if I look at the sentiments expressed in my social media networks, I see the opposite. My Facebook Newsfeed is a place of shared identity, full of messages of solidarity and unity; of Tony Walsh’s moving poem “This Is the Place” about Manchester as a place of grit, strength, and rich history; of a man in Manchester declaring that this city is a community, that this beautiful city is for everyone and that we will never turn on our neighbors, no matter what happens. These are carefully edited and easily shared posts, with numbers to show just how many thousands of people like those feelings, uniting us all.

Being away from home, those videos of solidarity and those posts have been reassuring. The more I think about them, though, the more they start to scare me a little. Thanks to algorithmic curation showing me more of what I like and less of what I don’t, I see an even smaller sliver of the people in the broader community that I care about. People who disagree with me, or people who think people like me shouldn’t even be in the UK, are not just unfamiliar and unknown to me; they’re entirely invisible. On my Facebook feed, there’s nobody expressing racist views or even anything that I deeply disagree with, but that doesn’t mean that these people don’t exist. They live in my hometown, no less.

Does my ethnicity automatically play into what I see? If the algorithm’s job is to show me things I’ll engage with the most, it would be logical for it to assume that I don’t want to see content that discriminates against me. I have a Muslim name; of course, I won’t agree with anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim views. The solidarity I see and experience may be crafted particularly for me, based on information gathered from my online behavior. Who knows what other kinds of solidarity are out there, that social media are helping craft or sustain? Who’s to say that someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum to me isn’t feeling exactly the same kind of reassurance that I am, but with the reverse sentiment? Perhaps they were also sad and scared by the attacks, but instead of seeing the expressions of unity between diverse communities that have sprung up that bring me comfort, their reassurance might manifest itself in anti-immigrant messages against people who, in their eyes, might look just like I do: brown skin, Muslim name, immigrant family. Thanks to what they see online, their false conviction that this incident is the fault of a religion, or of immigrants, is being strengthened by easily shared sound bites and videos instead of refuted with information about what is actually happening, the benefits immigration has brought the country, and the context to help situate those facts.

As with many countries right now, polarization of society in the UK is deeply visible, from huge differences in voting patterns between different age groups to expected voting in the upcoming general election. Being where I am right now, digital technologies offer me little in way of reaching out to people on the other side of that divide.

Before these technologies overwhelmed us, a tragedy was shared in one particular way by people who were present, and in another by people who learned of it afterward. Now those lines are blurrier than they were before, thanks to our ability to experience those tragedies online together. But the very structure of social media inserts doubt into the experience of solidarity that they pretend to generate. We’re often confronted with highly personalized, curated experiences online, which do the opposite of creating the “network” the platforms were expected to build, by building invisible walls between us. We can be reassured by finding others who feel the same way as us, but the price we pay is that we no longer see the full array of people and beliefs within our society. In this case, I’m prevented from seeing the full picture of the community I want to mourn with, and without that, I can’t fully process what’s happened.

But with tragedies like the one in Manchester, or elsewhere in the world, those boundaries between us shouldn’t mean anything. A loss of human lives is a tragedy, no matter who they are or where they are. Yet sharing in that common tragedy online can become overshadowed by concerns about garnering attention, which can come at the expense of sharing. Though any sort of well-wishes are always precious and valuable, sometimes it can be difficult to know what solidarity expressed on social media really means, and difficult to see what we’re trying to mourn.

Zara Rahman is a researcher, writer, and linguist who is interested in the intersection of power, race, and technology. She has traveled and worked in more than 25 countries in the field of information accessibility and data use in civil society. She was the first employee at OpenOil, looking into open data in the extractive industries, then worked for Open Knowledge, working with School of Data on data literacy for journalists and civil society. Rahman is currently a Fellow at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City, investigating the bridging role between highly tech-literate communities and lower tech-literate communities. She is also a Research Lead at The Engine Room where she leads their Responsible Data Program.