Meteorites, GIFs, and the End of the World


I’m one of those awful people who works in “new media,” so the first thing I did on Friday morning was check the internet. I was instantly met with a bunch of stories about a large meteorite exploding in the sky above Russia’s Ural Mountains, causing over 1,000 injuries to local residents, some considerable damage to buildings in the area, and of course a lot of noise on social networking.

In the above GIF, culled from amateur footage of the event, we see a street with telephone poles and street lights and the sort of box-y, anonymous building that could be found in the small towns of any American fly-over state. Then a bright flash streaks across the sky, swelling in size even as it leaves a trail of thick smoke behind it. Pretty dramatic.

Any disturbance of this magnitude deserves attention, but this one seems particularly ready-made for the Twitter and Facebook rounds. The footage looks like the end of the world, and yet the actual damage was minimal, at least proportionate to what the images connote. A huge explosion in the sky seems as if it should wreak more havoc than this one did. The effect of watching this GIF is sort of a gasp, coupled with a “thank god no one was killed,” followed by a renewed fascination because of that fact — one can be entertained by the light show, because the damage wasn’t all that bad.

This is something I’ve often noticed with news bits that go viral — the actual importance of the story often has an inverse relationship with the bit’s virality. The internet loves light, frothy, GIF-able news bits, apparently even if those stories suggest the end of the world.

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.