If the O.J. Simpson story broke today would it be just a hashtag?
Will today's kids – inundated by information online – understand the impact of the O.J. Simpson case 20 years ago? And would a case like Simpson's boil down to a hashtag in today's Internet culture?
On the 20th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson murder case and trial, some parents may wonder what impact the case would have on kids today. Would the speed of news dissemination, plus the sheer volume of online information from diverse sources reduce a modern Simpson trial to a blip instead of a watershed cultural event?
Parents who recall watching the bizarre and upsetting events of Mr. Simpson’s case and trial unfold on national television, pre-Internet popularity, may be stymied by the fact that their older children may have little knowledge of this culturally significant event and even less interest in the topic.
“O.J. Simpson’s in the news now?” asks my incredulous 19-year-old son, Ian when I tell him that I intend to write about Simpson. “Didn’t that happen like a million years ago or something? Why do we even care?”
Another concern parents may have is how to help teens and young adults grasp the gravity and societal impact of news events when they are not coming from a real-time TV experience or traditional in-depth printed news page, but are absorbed through a kind of modern media osmosis shaped by social media and second-hand information from friends.
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death outside her Los Angeles condo. Suspicion quickly focused on Simpson, who had beaten Nicole in the past and had no alibi.
For those of us who recall the Simpson case, which gained notoriety for many with a white Ford Bronco containing Simpson being slowly-chased down a Los Angeles highway on June 17, 1994, it was a time of both unity and division for our nation.
If the Simpson events and trial were to happen today, it seems unlikely they would have the same impact on society, since the Pew Research Group finds that the majority or teens and young adults get their news from the Internet – when they get news at all.
In the life cycle of a news event in the year 2014, something like the Simpson case might attain notoriety, a level of fascination or interest, but it seems no matter how gripping the event, the sheer mass of information running through the young adult and teen mind today – thanks to the Internet – means even big news events have far less impact and perhaps diminished staying power.
To my husband and me, it sometimes seems our four sons have Teflon-coated memory banks when it comes to news – nothing sticks.
“The O.J. trial caused a big racial divide in this country,” I tell Ian. “It was also one of the first live-feed news events to rivet people.”
I explain that while numerous polls have shown most people still believe that the African-American football legend killed his white ex-wife and her friend, many African-Americans, see his trial as an example of racism and the history of mistreatment of African-Americans by the justice system.
Ian says he understands, but adds, “Yeah, but if it happened today no one would care. It’s like the news is always about some star athlete or celebrity going to jail.”
The current case of Olympic athlete “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, on trial for the alleged murder of his girlfriend, comes to mind when Ian mentions this.
While I want to argue the point with my son, the truth is that our kids and young adults today have a bad case of what I call “computer brain” when it comes to the news.
If the modern mind of those under the age of 20 were a computer it would be all buffer and no cache; meaning that, like a computer with a limited memory capacity it can take in a large amount of information quickly into temporary storage space, but must quickly dump that information to make way for more.
The World Wide Web, once only for Department of Defense use, was in its infancy during the Simpson trial, only having been developed for public use by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990.
Facebook wouldn’t be created for another 10 years after Simpson’s 1994 arrest, because its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, was just age 10 at the time the criminal case against Simpson began to unfold on a national stage.
The lack of Internet availability, not to mention smartphones, as news broke of Simpson fleeing arrest, left American families glued to our TVs to watch the live coverage of the slow chase of Simpson’s white Bronco down the Los Angeles freeway.
“Your family loves you. Don’t throw it all away. Think of your kids. They’re thinking about you,” pleaded the voice of California Police Det. Tom Lange as CNN (a teenager itself, being founded just 14 years earlier) made a pioneering live broadcast of the slow, emotionally painful chase of one of America’s greatest football stars. Simpson was wanted for questioning in the brutal double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Det. Lange was speaking to Simpson via a cellphone roughly three times the size of anything our kids have ever held in their hands, long before touch screens existed.
Today, the entire transcript of that wrenching negotiation between Lange and Simpson might potentially be reduced to a pointed meme on a website like Reddit: “You’re scaring us all. You’re scaring your kids,” emblazoned across an image of Simpson making a strange face at the camera.
Before you knew it, the words would be autotuned, and applied over the images of badly dressed women, cats leaping from boxes, and politicians making speeches.
As parents who recall the event and may be tempted to be annoyed with our kids for not having the same respect or feelings toward the Simpson trial, it’s best to remember not to put our kids on trial for being born into a high-speed Internet culture.
Their horizons and capacity are simply too big to fit hand-in-glove with our own news experiences.
What we can do is continue to point out significant current events, perhaps posting them to our kids’ Facebook walls and sharing them via other social media feeds.
If your kids are so flooded with information that they are missing out on news, or the news they are reading is as in-depth as 140-characters, you might take the opportunity to link them into stories that matter.