Responding to tragedy – What brands (and brand marketers) sometimes forget: social networks are communities, not just channels.

boston-marathon-finish-lineIn the immediate wake of yesterday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, at least one prominent social media marketing expert, Chris Brogan, questioned the notion that brands should suspend or alter their social media activities when tragedy occurs. Striking a similar chord, tech blogger Chris Pirillo — who has built an impressive online empire on nerdy videos of product unveilings, reviews and commentary — suggested that there is a disproportionate response when tragedy happens in the U.S. Why should tragedy here be treated any differently than the many other, often more horrific, tragedies that happen daily in other parts of the world? Both of these questions bothered me.

Before I get into a (hopefully) logical discussion of what brands should do in these circumstances, let me offer a brief disclaimer: this one is personal. I grew up in Massachusetts and went to college in Boston just a short distance away from the spot where the bombs went off. During my misspent youth, I often wandered down the same streets that were yesterday covered in bodies and blood. So I’m not entirely objective on this subject. But that, in effect, is the point. Our reaction to tragedy is anything but objective.

And that’s something brands need to recognize. There is a reason that people who conduct the social media activities for major brands are often called “community managers.” Before social networks were invaded by brands, they were primarily a way for individuals — that is to say real people — to make connections and share information. They were and are communities in a very real sense.

Now social media experts often talk about how brands should use social networks to “engage” with their customers, have a “two-way dialog” and, above all, to be “authentic.” But underlying this approach is the dirty secret of social media marketing; that social networks are increasingly seen as just another channel to push products. Sure, you have to use a different style of communication and, you know, actually listen to customers from time to time. But at the end of the day, the goals are the same as any other marketing channel. Sell! Sell! Sell!

Perhaps I’m being naïve, but the authentic human reaction to tragedy is to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Real people personalize tragedy. They empathize with the victims. They want to help. It’s human nature.  In the midst of tragedy, carrying on as if nothing has happened is the opposite of authenticity. Nor is it particularly human. Imagine yourself walking down the street with a group of friends. One of them falls and cracks his head on the sidewalk. The most normal reaction would be stop and help. But if one of your friends kept talking about something else or, worse, just kept on walking, you probably wouldn’t be friends much longer.

So why respond to some tragedies and not to others? Do we treat every tragedy equally? No. Given the scale of human suffering in the world, that would be impossible. But that brings us back to the notion of community. A number of commenters, in reaction to both Brogan and Pirillo’s questions, raised the old trope of “American exceptionalism.” They argued that the Boston bombings were only a big deal because they happened in the U.S. If they’d happened anywhere else, no one would be suggesting that brands stop auto-tweeting or, in Pirillo’s case, delay a live unboxing of a “new” product (that’s actually been shipping for more than two months).

But again, these arguments miss the point. Even in a modern, globally connected society, our notion of community is still largely rooted in geography. For good or ill, it’s basic human nature — and not just an American affectation — to be more concerned with events closer to home. I suspect that if the bombings took place at the London Marathon next week instead of the Boston Marathon yesterday, the hue and cry for brands to take a breather from their online marketing activities would be just as strong among British citizens.

If brands want to be regarded as full-fledged members of a community, and not just faceless, unfeeling corporations that care about nothing more than shilling products, they need to behave like humans. Real humans (generally) don’t break into a highly charged, emotional conversation to offer their own mundane, off-topic updates. Real humans don’t ignore what’s happening right in front of them.

No one wants to wallow in tragedy. But when it strikes close to home, it’s not too much to ask brands to try to be relevant and empathetic in their social media communications or, alternatively, offer a brief, respectful silence. The selling can wait.

Follow Kevin Pedraja on Twitter at @kpedraja.