New York. Photograph: Getty Images
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I’ve got the New York bug – and it turns out the condition is hereditary

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So it looks as though I am going to be going to New York again. My mother, who left Manhattan to be with my father over half a century ago, still feels the pull of the place and has decided that she had better go there one more time while she still can. And the reason I can afford to go there is because she’s paying for my ticket. Well, you don’t turn down a free trip to New York, do you? Not even with your mother. Who, in my case, will be keeping a beady eye on the number of brandy-and-sodas I drink as part of my copyrighted anti-jet-lag system on the way there and back.

She has friends there, although sadly Cousin Lee, who mesmerised me when I was a child not because he was obviously gay but because he shaved with lather and a blade, died in 2009. Going to see him was the true, classy New York experience: a place in the mid-50s, east side, a luxurious apartment with a kitchen the size of a tea-chest (in which, however, he could cook sumptuous meals); trips to Chinatown and the best Jewish delis in town.

My mother, who used to appear on Broadway, still has New York in her blood and she would always watch the latest New Yorkbased TV shows – Rhoda, Kojak – so she could see how her city was getting on. “The best Kojak episodes are the ones with drugs in them,” she once confided in me and she was right – nothing else provided such a frisson, and a scene where the bald, lollipop sucking Telly Savalas shows his nephew a tenement stuffed with shivering junkies has probably done more than anything else to keep me off the skag for life.

The condition – New Yorkitis – is hereditary. I showed the kids The Odd Couple with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon the other weekend and despite there being no spies, spaceships or elves in it, just a lot of talk, they loved it. And what talk. The film may be a thinly disguised version of a play with a low proportion of exterior shots, but it is as muggy with the atmosphere of the place as an un-air-conditioned summer’s day there. The natural heat of the place is, in its way, a character; think also of Rear Window. I first went to the city as a child, around the same time The Odd Couple was made, and to me that is how New York is meant to look: the cabs are that shape, policemen’s caps are pointy around the circumference, like Officer Dibble’s in Top Cat, and the men wear natty pork-pie hats. It’s as archaic an image as that of a London wracked with pea-soupers but any deviation from it I am capable of blanking utterly. There are enough satisfactory relics.

That said, I tend to enjoy the full contemporary experience when I go to the City That Never Sleeps, which means I am more John Self in Money than the loquacious nebbish of a Woody Allen story. And after the last time, which ended up in a miserable, hopeless search round the Diamond District for a stolen gold watch, I was more than half glad that financial considerations would prevent me from making the trip there ever again. I need to be kept on a leash while I’m there. It starts with oysters at Grand Central and ends up trying to give the correct description to a policeman in Times Square at four o’clock in the morning.

I wonder whether the problem is that London isn’t really anything, but New York really is New York. When T S Eliot called London the Unreal City, he was on to something. London is simply too sprawling for us to see it – we’re out of scale with it, or in the wrong dimension.

I’ve lived here for about 98 per cent of my life and feel my grasp of the place actually slipping as I get older. Whereas New York’s quiddity and immensity peers down at you the whole time. The place is an intramuscular injection of hard-core, uncut cityness which, after London’s methadone, comes as quite a jolt and can cause some people to overdose. And you don’t have to be a big, brash city to have this effect on the Londoner: pretty much anywhere else can do it.

Meanwhile, I flick through the pages of my stiff new US passport. Compared with its predecessor, this is a document so stuffed with patriotic bling that it makes you want to cringe. Each page has either an eagle or a cowboy or a steam train or a sailing ship or a Statue of Liberty and an inspiring quote to go with it. It’s funny. Every time I think to myself that this is the time I will cast off my wimpy Englishness and move to the US, something happens to make me go “oh, deary me. Tut tut.”

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.