Before the sun set on the day of one of the largest – though harmless – East Coast earthquakes in recent history, a photograph mocking the hype surrounding the event appeared on blogs and Facebook feeds all over the Internet.
In many instances, the image, which shows a lone plastic lawn chair knocked over on its back, is joined by the caption, “Thanks to all of you for your kind words of support, as we look to recover from the devastation of today’s quake!”
So why did so many people see this particular photograph just hours after the earthquake?
“This image resonates with us because of its ironic use of humor,” says Media Studies and Production Associate Professor Jan Fernback of Temple University’s School of Media and Communication. “As natural disasters go, our earthquake was not only minuscule, it also posed no real threat to anyone. In light of some of the terrible devastation the world has seen in recent years (Japan, Haiti, Chile, etc.) and because earthquakes are rare here, our earthquake seems ‘funny.’ What is a funnier image of ‘devastation’ than the toppling over of a light, plastic chair?”
The earthquake was a shared experience, which inspired many to flock to social media networks to comment on their feelings. “Natural disasters are events that draw people together socially, whether they are feeling victimized (and therefore hopeless or terrified) or whether they are feeling sympathy (and therefore charitable or sad, for example),” she says.
The fact that humans love to laugh together is one of the reasons people chose to share this particular image with others, instead of viewing it, enjoying a chuckle and moving on with their days.
“Research of television viewing has demonstrated that people tend to laugh more often and louder when in group viewing situations than when alone. So many of the images and videos that are reposted tend to be humorous ones. Humans also cry together, but it’s much more common for us to want to laugh when we’re together and to feel solidarity with others through humor,” Fernback says.
Most images or videos that go viral like the fallen lawn chair are emotionally charged. “Essentially, this is because humans are ultimately social beings who want to share feelings with one another, rather than sharing dry facts,” she says. “Sharing strong feelings is part of the basic desire to feel connected to one another – to feel community. Obviously, social media enable this connection to occur rapidly and widely.”