Earlier this week, a Muslim boy named Ahmed Mohamed took a homemade digital clock to show his teachers at his suburban Dallas school. He was promptly reported by other teachers for having a bomb-like device, and whisked away in handcuffs despite not actually having a bomb. He was humiliated, interrogated, and eventually released. As the moment was broadcast to social media, it became the perfect intersection of racial prejudice, science, profiling, problems with authoritative bodies, micro-celebrity, and tolerance.
This moment was the perfect culmination of #topical topics for contemporary internet content. Recap pieces, follow up pieces, profiles, celebrity tweet recaps, and video content could all be bountifully created and instantly consumed by internet users wanting to soak in the story. It was a #SocialMediaMoment where everyone had to have a #take in order to prove that they were in touch with the internet and viewed their own broadcasting of perpetual connectivity as a philanthropic opportunity to make the world a better place with a share or positive opinion.
Ahmed Mohamed's story is the perfect reflection of the demand for pro-science, pro-tolerance content on the internet. In a matter of moments, this seemingly arbitrary local story that could have been lost as fodder turned into a polarizing story that engaged international content farmers and their farmsteads. There are takeaways from the story that are ultimately positive lessons, but watching the content farm feast upon Ahmed was one of the quickest churn cycle's we've ever witnessed concerning pro-science angled content.
Not even a Neil deGrasse Tyson tweet spree after a bad science film could get this level of engagement.
Why did content farms feast upon Ahmed's unfair arrest so quickly?
Science and geeketry engages people who are passionate about the internet as a medium for educational opportunity.
The portrayal of 'science' on content farms is a way to allude to problems with the American position in the global economy, educational policy, and regional differences in culture without actually providing a way to solve them. It provides a similar momentary thrill for the same people who go to contemporary art museums to take photographs of 'cool' things for their Instagram feeds. It is a way to feel 'more science-y,' which is a good idea. Except that all you did was consume a node of internet content.
Consuming 'actual science' from the real world makes geek-content-sharers feel more connected, as opposed to sharing the perpetual science fiction and comic book movie news that functions as a well-monetized economy of hype. Whether you are a geek, a normal person, or a teacher managing a class Facebook page, sharing opinion pieces on science automatically make you seem 'smarter' in the context of your social media feed because you 'care about STEM topics'.
They are engineered for the same purpose as any other content on the internet: to inspire a click, a share, a Facebook like, an insite click, or a sponsored outbound click. All in the name of supporting STEM fields as a way to save the American economy and educational systems. It might be true, but another click on some Facebook story isn't actually 'raising awareness' in a meaningful way.
Broadcasting in support of science is a great move for all celebrities.
When President Obama tweeted in support of Ahmed, he drafted one of the ultimate pro-science, pro-technology speeches of all time (in under 140 characters). Mark Zuckerberg extended an invitation to Ahmed to the Facebook campus, while Reddit offered him an internship. The cause is an idea that is deconstructed into something as vaguely supportable as the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed. It's not just fun to stand for something… It's IMPORTANT.
When it comes to the self-perception of the moderate liberal, this is the type of branding every company, politician, and random post-Ellen social media celebrity needs to embrace. It's a vague way of being viewed as a progressive technologist who has solutions for problems based in the scientific process. All of this while engaging in nothing remotely scientific or process oriented whatsoever. Scientific content is as fluffy as other terrible content.
Even the most progressive conservative can get 'internet cred' points by supporting #science_cause.
Anti-backwards-territory content is very scalable amongst Tolerant People who are actually Intolerant of Ignorance.
Tolerant people are usually intolerant of ignorance across race, class, and any segregational construct. Content farms are aware of the intolerance of tolerant people, and slant headlines and content in order to appeal to this tolerant angst, desperate to rage against the intolerance in the world.
In direct conflict with tolerant themes, there is usually a general undertone when recapping Ahmed's story against the suburban Dallas community of Irving. It's a suburb that is probably like many other suburbs in the country, but it is easy to project your feelings about a backwards "Southern," "Texan," "rural," or "red state" values onto the community. Hating hatred is the only way the internet user can express their problems with the backwards, inversed world.
The only control the internet user can take of the cruel world of discrimination is sharing a story that perfectly embodies what is wrong with the world.
As a person of color from Texas, it is always difficult for me to calibrate whether or not tolerant-baiting content actually makes the world a better place. It seems as though the narrow-minded people whose minds may actually need to be more tolerant have already siphoned their content streams to reflect their point of view. The thinkpieces and moment of clarity reports that embody the lessons that they will never accept into their hearts cannot scale across a divide this deep.
The are multiple internets happening at once, and the 'backwards' people who need to be exposed to new ideas are already having their clicks preyed upon by content farms that pander to their users. The stereotypical conservative who doesn't believe in evolution and wants to build a wall along the Mexican border will never find that perfect content that could change their mind, especially based on their Facebook algorithm. Stories of Ahmed as a posterchild for STEM topics will not change anything, even in multiple generations.
The internet's content farms loves the microcelebrities it creates to validate the mediacycle as 'a mechanism for social change.'
Ahmed Mohamed is the latest microcelebrity brought to market as a posterchild for positive narratives on the internet. Soon, Ahmed will enter a top tier university after multiple years of a top tier internship at top tier unicorn companies. He may obtain a social media presence where his tweets in support of science have engagement numbers that rival those of only Neil Tysson Degrasse and Bill Nye. While very minimal depth was offered into another random act of intolerance, at least the story of Ahmed scaled into the masses and was a talking point at the Republican debates. In ten years, we will read "10 years later" stories about Ahmed. All of this enforces content farms as a necessary construct in a good world.
Until then, the content farms will continue to grift for content, milking the topicality of everything into pages of consumables. Inventing terms, and using cultural and informational biases to pit worlds against one another. We are all floating in the fluidity of constant, instant information, seeking one piece of content that offers the moral foundation upon which to stand. The story of Ahmed is one that swept us into the whirlpool of contemporary America issues more instantly and swiftly than before.