Media

Finding A Student Who Wasn't Lost: Social Media To The Rescue?

A network of nodes connected. i
iStockphoto.com
A network of nodes connected.
iStockphoto.com

Something interesting happened to Jacob Boehm and his family, but it isn't what the media's suggesting.

In case you missed this story: Boehm is a 22-year-old Stanford student who spent the summer performing with his school choir in Japan. After the group finished touring, he traveled by himself, and along the way, he made regular social media updates about his trip. On August 13, he let everyone know he was in Malaysia, and then no one heard from him for a week.

His parents were worried by his sudden silence, so they emailed a dozen of his friends to ask if they could use social media to track him down. Soon, thousands of people took to Twitter, Reddit, and other sites to launch a "find Jacob" campaign. Facebook employees posted ads about him in both English and Malay. The U.S Embassy got involved. And less than 24 hours after Boehm became a cause, rangers found him in Taman Negara National Park.

Turns out, he was just hiking around. The park doesn't get cell phone or internet reception, and apparently, the kid forgot to mention this to anyone before he entered.

Essentially, then, a young man forgot to be conscientious, and his parents got worried. If my son were halfway across the world and suddenly stopped making regular contact, I'd run down to the airport in my pajamas and demand to get on the next flight to Asia, so I can't fault Boehm's parents for reaching out to his friends. I'm even touched that so many strangers decided to help find him.

But it's unsettling how some outlets have reported this story, as though Boehm were snatched from the jaws of doom. The New York Times headline reads "Social Media Help Find U.S. Student in Malaysia," as though he were actually lost, and the story's lede promises a tale of horror and redemption:

It is every parent's nightmare: a normally reliable child sets off on a journey, then vanishes without a trace. But through the power of social media, a small army of thousands of volunteers produced a happy ending in the case of Jacob Boehm.

A report in The Huffington Post opens with this breathless declaration:

There are signs that a missing American student who was traveling alone in Malaysia has been found — and Facebook may have played a large role in his discovery.

Both pieces report on a perceived crisis as though it were an actual crisis, treating parental fears like facts. That allows for an uplifting ode to social media, but wouldn't the stories have been just as interesting without those breathless exaggerations?

As Boehm's mother told one blog, "Clearly it was the power of social media that helped us find him — though, of course, he was never lost. We are the ones who were lost." According to the Times, she also said that "the 'real story' was not her son's disappearance, but rather that 'thousands of people worked together to find him.'"

Couldn't we have gotten that report instead, without the smoke and mirrors? It's still interesting, still moving, still impressive.

By downplaying reality in favor of Read Me Now! hysterics, these reports have both cheapened the global hunt for Boehm and insulated it from critical thought. We might all be moved that so many Facebookers cared for a stranger, and we might all discuss the ramifications of turning parental anxiety into a global cause. But when Boehm's story is manipulated into a thrilling rescue with a happy ending, we're encouraged to wipe a tear, not engage with the truth.

Mark Blankenship is on Twitter as @CritCondition.

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