True Crime Diary is a great true crime blog run by writer Michelle McNamara. Ms. McNamara doesn’t update her blog daily, but when she does, the product is often an insightful and thought-provoking long read. That’s true of this entry posted yesterday, “#bloodbath: how social media might have changed one of history’s most infamous crime sprees.”
The crime spree in question: the horrific murders committed by the followers of maniac Charles Manson during the Summer of ’69. Using facts from the case, Ms. McNamara posits an alternate timeline in which smartphones and Twitter were as ubiquitous then as they are now. She paints a brief portrait of how tech might have altered the course of the Manson Family’s rampage, beginning the night Manson followers slaughtered actress Sharon Tate and several guests at Ms. Tate’s secluded Hollywood home:
Timothy Ireland was one of the five counselors supervising the Westlake camp-out. At approximately 12:40 a.m. he heard a male voice from what seemed a long distance away, to the north or northeast.
“Oh, God, no, please don’t! Oh, God, no, don’t, don’t, don’t…”
The scream lasted for about 10 seconds before coming to an abrupt end, followed by a silence that suggested that somewhere out there a man begging to be spared had not.
Ireland was disturbed. Unsure what to do, he took out his cell phone and accessed his Twitter account.
@timireleand: “Someone screaming just now around Cielo in B. Canyon. Anyone? #freakedout”
Ms. McNamara briefly stretches this alternate history to include other witnesses who heard evidence of what was happening at the Tate residence. She imagines a Twitter dialogue in which they put together sounds of screaming and gunshots and decide it might be a good idea to call the cops.
Of course, Twitter and mobile Internet access were actually decades away at the time, and the witnesses had no way of putting their heads together. Ms. McNamara suggests that if tech had been 40 years in advance of where it really was in 1969, the first Manson murders might have been a worldwide story within hours.
If that’s not enough of a counterfactual for you, Ms. McNamara also goes on to theorize that today’s technology might have stopped Charles Manson’s rise to infamy before it began.
She paints a portrait of the psychopathic loser’s web presence–as well as the presence of the web–being Manson’s greatest weakness as he attempts to recruit an insecure female follower:
Today Manson, a mediocre troubadour whose inability to break through consumed him, would probably post his songs to MySpace. He would track the number of listeners obsessively. When he meets a lonely, deeply insecure young woman at a random gathering in Manhattan Beach she warms to his gaze. She listens attentively as he rambles about his music. During an interruption in their conversation she sneaks into the bathroom and whips out her phone. She looks him up. His profile is disjointed and strewn with mistakes. That stirring stare is less stirring on the screen. Hardly anyone at all has listened to his songs.
Still, it’s attention, what she craves, and she intends to make her way through the party back to him. But a ping alerts her to a Facebook update from an old friend. A calendar reminder pops up about an upcoming Meetup gathering. A group in the dining room is forming around a laptop, watching a YouTube clip, and their laughter is intoxicating.
Could the constant distractions of social media, so often the subject of pearl-twisting and hand-wringing today, have helped reveal the true emptiness at the center of a glib monster like Manson? It’s a provocative thought.
Betabeat contacted Michelle McNamara for further comment. She said that in part she wanted to examine how social media can affect reportage of unfolding crime dramas. She cited an arson rampage that struck Los Angeles in January. Twitter updates during that crime spree were “effective and mesmerizing,” she said, “all these voices chiming in with reports and pictures.”
Ms. McNamara told Betabeat that she later re-read Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the Manson crimes, Helter Skelter, and that she’d “forgotten what a load of horse shit [Manson] fed his followers.”
Manson, she said, used his physical presence to keep followers in line, and she “started thinking about how he’d fare in today’s Twitter’s world” in addition to wondering how word the Manson Family crimes might “be disseminated in real time today.”
Betabeat asked Ms. McNamara if she thought a new-school Manson could leverage the same social networking tools to draw people into his psychopathic web. Ms. McNamara said she thought it would tough “for a malevolent but charismatic figure to reign through social media” now.
“Because not only are we deeply distracted with content overload,” she said, “we also have many ways to unmask people, from digging up their embarrassing past to uploading their old ridiculous videos, which can quickly reduce their standing among glassy-eyed devotees.”
Ms. McNamara also told Betabeat that she’s “bullish about the use of Twitter in crime-solving in the future.”
“I think law enforcement is just starting to recognize the potential there,” she said, “Yes, boots on the ground are always necessary, but hashtags are quick and can result an amazing amount of information in very little time.”
As we were preparing this post, an unfolding hostage situation in a Pittsburgh office building proved Ms. McNamara’s points regarding crime and social media: as of 1:30 Friday afternoon, 22-year-old Klein Michael Thaxton was holding a hostage at gunpoint on the 16th floor of Three Gateway Center. He has apparently been updating his Facebook page throughout the situation.