Photo via Flickr user istolethetv
Today, on the thirteenth anniversary of the time two planes flew into the World Trade Center and set in motion a series of events that have led to uncountable cases of torture, death, and oppression, we are talking about brands. Specifically, we are talking about brands that have decided to commemorate 9/11 through social media. Even more specifically, we are talking about a single tweet from Fleshlight, a company that makes fake vaginas for men to ejaculate into for pleasure:
The Fleshlight tweet has been circulated far and wide on websites because putting "Fleshlight" and "9/11" in a headline is Facebook traffic GOLD, baby, and also because it is pretty funny and gross and awful that companies are taking a few seconds to metaphorically bow their metaphorical heads and go: See guys, we feel sad about the sad thing too. Here is a picture of a flag!
We do this every year. September 11 rolls around and people feel the need to acknowledge it, because it remains this shadow looming over everything. There are the streets named after 9/11 victims and the fading memorials painted on walls; there are the stories about young children who lost parents in the attacks; there's also the matter of US foreign policy, which is still centered around getting the bad guys responsible in the Middle East. The event seems monumental and impossible to understand—this infuriating injustice that has spawned lots of other injustices. Just thinking about it for too long makes you feel angry and sick. It sucks all the irony out of the room, and you get a twinge of guilt or transgression when you joke about it.
Social media is the worst place to deal with those kinds of feelings. Quips and bombast play well on Twitter; sincerity does not. You need more than 140 characters to communicate what September 11 feels like in your head, and maybe most people can't communicate it properly at all. So what you get is photos of people looking solemn and dramatically-lit flags. You get the Skyline Chili Twitter account pausing its full-throated and enthusiastic endorsement of Skyline Chili to deliver this image:
You get the Chicago White Sox letting the world know baseball players haven't forgotten either:
And you get a fan account for the Arizona Cardinals football team tweeting out a picture of former player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, presumably on the grounds that it's all part of the same big 9/11 thing:
Something called Catser announced it would stop tweeting altogether for the morning to commemorate the day:
...and something called White Girl Week begged for favs and RTs:
This also happened:
I guess we're supposed to reject these remembrances as tawdry ways for terminally unsavvy brand salesman to inject themselves into the conversation. Lord knows they do that shit often enough—just the other day DiGiorno Pizza managed to accidentally make fun of domestic abuse victims. But this is America, where we drape ourselves in patriotism 24/7/365 and will, like, unironically bake a giant flag-shaped cake and jump over it on a motorcycle for fun. Who's to say that a fake vagina company can't publicly grieve? Who's to say that, for instance, a spammy Twitter account dedicated to vaguely inspirational sayings can't suddenly get serious?
Individually these tweets seem weird at best and exploitative at worst—on some level they treat 9/11 as just another trending topic, another chance for #engagement. Collectively, though, they combine with all the personal memories and stories being shared to turn Twitter and Facebook into the internet equivalent of a roadside shrine. Post after post of the Twin Towers, old photos of the victims, firefighters striding out of the dust and rubble, a list of the names of the dead, a pair of lights shining upward into the atmosphere. Don't they express—well, if not actual hurt and longing, than at least a reasonable facsimile of hurt and longing? And what's the difference anyway? In other words, does the fact that this tweet comes from Walmart and not an actual meatspace humanoid drain it of all meaning?
Silicon Valley has yet to invent a site or an app that gives us a good way to honor the anniversary of 3,000 people dying in fire and collapsing steel. The social media managers for America's brightest brand can't find a way to tweet about the event that doesn't feel vaguely pathetic and insufficient. Neither has anyone else. The best way to tweet about 9/11, whether you're Fleshlight or just a dude who normally uses #NeverForget to joke about dropping his sandwich on the floor, is to not tweet at all. Or just head back to bed and hope this all goes away tomorrow.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.