Two years ago we asked the question: Could the mass hysteria of the 1938 "War of the Worlds" scandal, in which a Halloween radio drama orchestrated by actor Orson Welles was mistaken for a real announcement of Martians landing in New Jersey, still take place in the Information Age?
The answer: Yes, it could. And it happened this week.
Like millions of Americans, you were probably glued to your computer watching some news outlet's live video stream or hitting refresh on Twitter for updates on "Balloon Boy," the twisted saga of a 6-year-old Colorado boy who had allegedly floated away in a flying-saucer-shaped helium balloon that his parents had built. Was he alive? Had the helium suffocated him? Had he, heaven forbid, fallen out of the balloon?
And the media flipped out.
"This Is Wrong: A Six Year Old Child Could Die On Live Television," industry blog Mediaite warned. Keywords related to the missing kid started to dominate Twitter's trending topics. More details started to pour in: the boy was revealed to be Falcon Heene of Fort Collins, Colo., whose parents were avid storm-chasers and whose family had appeared on reality show "Wife Swap." Audiences grew captivated as the whole situation became weirder and weirder.
Thankfully, "Balloon Boy" was safe. But rather than being dramatically rescued from a flying saucer in an uplifting ending worthy of the "Miracle on the Hudson," it turned out that he'd been in a box in his parents' attic the entire time: and then the really weird details began to emerge. The family quickly hopped aboard the TV news circuit, and not only did little Falcon blithely say "we did it for the show" on "Larry King Live," he proceeded to puke on two network morning shows. Later in the day, the Business Insider floated a claim that a former video intern for the boy's father, Richard Heene, was attempting to sell evidence that the entire affair was fabricated for a TV show. (This has not been proven whatsoever.)
It's annoying. It's annoying that the whole thing could have been an attention-grabbing stunt. It's even more annoying that hours of workplace productivity were slurped down the drain by streaming-video footage of a wacky silver balloon that didn't actually have a traumatized 6-year-old on board like we all thought it did. Likewise, it was probably pretty darn frustrating back in 1938 when scores of Americans realized that they'd mistaken a "War of the Worlds"-themed radio drama for a real emergency broadcast--especially for the people in the New York and Philadelphia metro areas who reportedly fled their homes in panic. (Try to explain that one to the neighbors.)
But maybe this cloud (balloon?) has a silver (tinfoil?) lining. Much has been made recently of the death of "watercooler" media: the TV show everyone is watching, the news story everyone is following, the topic that the whole world seemingly can't stop talking about. The Internet's ability to slice and dice culture into niches and easy-to-follow subcultures was supposed to more or less destroy that. Yet we had another "War of the Worlds": something weird and bizarre that made us all completely freak out like spooked chickens.
For better or for worse, just about everyone on Thursday was talking about "Balloon Boy." They were worried about him. They were incessantly searching Google News for any kind of update. They were cracking snarky jokes and wondering if it was "too soon." They were biting their nails when a photograph started to circulate that seemed to show an object falling from the silver saucer balloon. They were relieved when "Balloon Boy" was found safe. And they were angrily cursing themselves and the national news media when it became clear that the whole thing could have been fabricated. This was the news story that disproved our cynicism over the viability of true, mass-media phenomena in the Digital Age. In fact, it was the tools of the Web--streaming video, Twitter, news aggregators--that made "Balloon Boy" into the sensation that he became.
And honestly? If we have to look like gullible idiots, we might as well all be in it together.