Recently, the concept of the “Twittersphere” has introduced itself to accepted English vernacular, with the official Oxford Dictionary definition transcribed as ‘postings made on the social networking site Twitter, considered collectively’ (Kessler 2011).
This contemporary phenomenon can be closely linked with the abstract concept of ‘The Public Sphere’, which is used to describe a virtual public space where individuals can interact and stay informed of current events (McKee 2005), as they both allow individuals to respond to issues or events conveyed by media platforms and form particular discourses via discussion with others.
The unparalleled power of social media has gained further prominence in the recent media coverage of the disappearance of Jill Meagher, and has been recognised as both a positive and negative force in such a situation.
A positive case in point is a Facebook page set up by Jill’s family and friends attracted over 100,000 “likes” in the days following her disappearance, with many users sharing and re-posting CCTV footage of a suspect, a digital parallel to the physical “postering” that adorned Melbourne’s streets. This social media strategy was implemented alongside traditional mass media coverage via television news programmes and newspapers – which could be attributed to the rapid profile the campaign gained via Facebook and Twitter.
Conversely, inflammatory online comments and hate pages set up following the discovery of the identity of the man accused in murdering Jill have resulted in the Victoria Police requesting users to ‘refrain from posting anything on social media which could jeopardise […] the presumption of innocence as this has the very high potential to interfere with the administration of justice’ (Connelly 2012). This is not only an example of the Twittersphere/public sphere responding to current events, but also potentially influencing the consequences of such events – representing a full-circle model of media-user power hierarchy.
It is important to note that the cultural impact of Jill Meagher’s murder is not necessarily the norm; however, it could be argued that the unprecedented public reaction could not be possible without the advent of social media technologies, and allowed users across the world to participate virtually and physically in the rally of support that this case has generated for the memory of Jill, as well as her family and friends efforts to find her, and ultimately bring justice to her killer.
The media’s obsession with the case has led to an almost “celebrity” status for Jill, her husband and her killer – albeit a most-likely unwanted title by all involved. Of course, they are not celebrities in the traditional sense, but have certainly garnered a legacy of being known by the wider public, one that, it can be presumed, will be long-lasting.
A link can be made with this rapid ascension to prominence to the concept of the ‘celebrity economy’ (Marshall 2010, p. 498) – specifically, the break-down of the barriers between celebrity and the normal. It was not uncommon for many individuals to question: What if it had been me; or my daughter, wife or mother? The public empathised with what had happened; and what they had seen played out over the space of a matter of days in the media.
This is not to say that Jill was indeed in any way extraordinary, it was the shocking events of her disappearance, and her normality that captivated an audience of millions and provoked an outpouring of grief and rage. Not only did strangers feel for Jill and her family, they felt like they knew her personally due to the extensive coverage they had followed via the media for the good part of a week.
As part of the empathy felt by many towards Jill’s tragic fate, the term specular economy could be used to describe the collective awareness of the individual’s self as we re-evaluated ‘how we present ourselves’ (Marshall 2010, p. 498) as well as ‘how other perceive us’ (Marshall 2010, p. 499). There were many cases in the media as well as social media of individuals questioning how they, and women and general, should respond to the incident, and how they themselves can prevent this from happening to them. Not only this, but whether an individual should have to evaluate how they behave in public was also open to debate.
Although social media did not play a part in the actual murder of Jill, many are using the sites as examples of society ‘inhabiting spaces where we are not only on display but we think about our mediated construction of ourselves sometimes continuously’ (Marshall 2010, p. 499). It seems in this day and age, public image is everything, and questions arise whether the sharing of personal information on social networking sites could leave individuals as vulnerable as Jill was on that dark Brunswick Street.
The impact of “The Search for Jill” was felt on a global scale, reaching as far as Jill’s homeland of Ireland, and providing an example of the physical flows of globalisation encompassing the ‘movement of people across national boundaries’ (Srivastava, Warren & Moore 2012), via Jill and her husband’s immigration to Australia, as well as information and media flows. These being the ‘information exchanged by people’ (Srivastava, Warren & Moore 2012), as well media coverage that crosses national boundaries and transforming initially parochial issues into truly ‘global events’ (Srivastava, Warren & Moore 2012). In this case, Irish media seized on the story as it affected one of their own, similar to how Australian media reports the fates of Australians overseas, whether it is perceived as “good” or “bad”. We, as a society, like to remain connected to those that are relevant to us as a collective nation, and as individuals.
As alluded, there is an overall consensus that while ‘globalization is being shaped by technological changes’ (Nederveen Pieterse 2004, p. 8), technology is ‘socially embedded and shaped’ (Nederveen Pieterse 2004, p. 10). These social forces being the active response of users via social media to express widespread support and condemnation of the incident discussed.
Ultimately the case of Jill Meagher has highlighted how social media enhances the Public Sphere as well as providing difficulties that have, in the past, able to be effectively controlled. There is an improved ability to transmit information instantaneously to a wider audience of users regardless of many physical or cultural boundaries. Furthermore, the efforts of the media to enshrine the memory of Jill allowed individuals to feel a personal connection to the case, and relate in a way that would never be possible otherwise. As one article described: ‘Never in recent memory has one crime touched so many’ (Duck & Thompson 2012).
Connelly, C 2012, ‘Victorian Police warn social media users to stop posting comments about Jill Meagher case that may influence trial’, 28 September, retrieved 3 October 2012, <http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/victorian-police-warn-social-media-users-to-stop-posting-content-about-jill-meagher-case-that-may-influence-trial/story-fndo48ca-1226483554708>.
Duck, S & Thompson, A 2012, ‘Police dismantle shrines to Jill Meagher on Sydney Rd in Brunswick’, Herald Sun, 1 October, retrieved 3 October 2012, <http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/more-than-30000-victorians-march-to-honour-jill-meagher-and-vow-never-to-forget/story-e6frf7kx-1226484726240>.
Kessler, S 2011, ‘”ZOMG” & “Twittersphere” enter the Oxford dictionary’, Mashable, 3 June, retrieved 3 October 2012, <http://mashable.com/2011/06/03/zomg-twittersphere-oxford-dictionary/>.
Marshall, PD 2010, ‘The Specular Economy’, Society, Vol. 2010, no. 47, pp. 498-502.
McKee A. (2005), The Public Sphere: An Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 4-18.
Nederveen Pieterse, J 2004, ‘Globalization: consensus and controversies’, Globalization and culture: global mélange, Rowan & Littlefield, Lanham, Md., pp. 7–21.
Srivastava, S, Warren, B & Moore, C 2012, ‘Topic 1. Introduction: The Flows of Globalisation’, Deakin Studies Online (DSO), retrieved 3 October 2012, <https://d2l.deakin.edu.au/d2l/lms/content/viewer/main_frame.d2l?ou=31220&tId=1586865>.