Rap Genius and Bad Poetry: It’s Always Too Soon to Grab Personal Attention After a Tragedy

How soon is “too soon”? The phrase is usually deployed as a joke, a comment on anything from international news to the breakup of a celebrity couple. Usually written or said with the minimal thought given to an offhand comment, the quip is familiar disyllabic punctuation online and sometimes even in real life. But really, there are some subjects that are never not too soon, as RapGenius founder Mahbod Moghadam demonstrated over the weekend.

A 2007 Urban Dictionary post provides this example of the usage of “too soon”:

person1: Ah man, i didn’t study for the final. I’m gonna fail for sure

person2: Dude, you’re screwed like Steve Irwin in a tank of stingrays.

person1: Too soon.

Steve Irwin died a year before that post was written, meaning that, although you can picture two genius high schoolers having that conversation, a year later is still too soon. The same can be said if you make a joke about the Holocaust or slavery, yes, you’re an insensitive and possibly racist asshole, but even in the amount of time that has passed since those two atrocities, it is still too soon to be making jokes at their expense. There are few hard guidelines for digital and contemporary etiquette, but the integration of “too soon” into the larger lexicon as a winking rebuke hints that yes, there is a space between taste and distaste, and one can and does cross it, thus earning a “too soon” response. In one way or another, it’s always “too soon” for tragedy.

That same logic, I’d like to think, extends into the realm of bad annotations, getting your Google ranking up using questionable techniques, bad experimental poetry, and basically doing the Internet equivalent to jumping up and down and saying, “Look at me! Divert your eyes from the horrible thing that happened and pay attention to me!” This kind of click-baiting is the bread and butter of the hit-generating, headline business of online media and the endless parade of think pieces about why something horrible happened, who should be blamed for it, society’s reaction to it happening, and what we can do to move forward or continue moonwalking backward into oblivion. I think we can argue that this whole industry verges on “too soon.”

What I’m specifically talking about is more than that. It’s the sort of blind ambition that drives somebody with a website into which somebody invested 15 million dollars not just annotate the manifesto of a killer the very same weekend he committed his mass murders, but to do so with crude, misogynistic, and downright hurtful comments. That’s what Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam did, and it led to his ousting from the company he helped create. Bottom line: there is undoubtedly a time and a place when it is perfectly fine and even productive to analyze the musings of a mad man, but it isn’t something you do for fun or for hits, and you especially don’t do it to show you agree with Elliot Rodger’s perverse vision of the world.

The media exploiting tragedy and scandal to help move papers certainly isn’t a new concept. Look at front pages from Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers in the 1800s all the way up to today’s New York Post. Upworthy headlines can get somewhere from 50 to 60 million people a month to click on their website. As Katy Waldman at Slate pointed out, the Upworthy clickbait headline (which could really be said of almost any headline on the Internet) is both a good and really bad thing: “It harnesses the latest wisdom about Internet sharing to bring staggering amounts of attention to important issues. Or here’s why you should hate Upworthy: It is craven, formulaic, and sickly-sweet, despoiling the innermost secrets of the Web and human nature and getting rich.”

There’s also an argument for trying to take tragedy and turn it into art. As we’ve been talking about a lot as of late with the 9/11 Memorial Museum, this not only plays into the “too soon” discussion, but it also serves up its own particular flavor of bad taste that’s a little different from Moghadam’s annotations. Case in point: “The Last Words of Mass Murderer Elliot Rodger Remixed Into Poetry” by Seth Abramson at Huffington Post. Posted at (according to the time stamp) 5:34 AM on May 25, a bit of quick math reveals that Abramson took less than a day to think about the fact that he was taking the words of a killer and turning them into what he calls “a vehicle for amity and compassion.” Less than a day after this senseless tragedy, Abramson turned around and made really bad art out of it.

You can defend the post by saying, sure, everybody needs to find a way cope, and I won’t disagree with that. But does Abramson’s piece on a site the size of Huffington Post really come across as coping? I think it just comes off as a sad and failed attempt at making some kind of statement, artistic or not. Tragedy isn’t your canvas, no matter how deep and profound you think your work might be. A crazed woman-hater going on a murderous rampage doesn’t give you license to make poetry out of his words, and it certainly isn’t an opportunity to push your SEO ranking up a few more notches.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr do figure into the ongoing discussion about the use of the web in the face of tragedy. Most recently, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag on Twitter, a response to the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, seemed like a good idea — a way to voice support and to deal with this horrible thing that was, and still is, taking place. But as many critics pointed out, the topic did “more harm than good” in the short and long term. Yet after the UCSB murders, motivated by one murderer’s hated for women, another hashtag, #YesAllWomen, genuinely worked as a way to cope with this latest round of senselessness. But it also delivered a huge message (nearly 1.2m of them, according to Mashable) that while Rodger is an extreme example, women deal with misogyny on a daily basis, and until we acknowledge this, we’re just waiting for the next tragedy.

While I I’m not naive enough to think a hashtag on Twitter can reverse years and years of violence, the #YesAllWomen hashtag represented the only conceivable way I could think to respond to something like the horror that took place in California over the weekend. It’s something that people should pay close attention to before hitting publish on their crass annotations or bad poetry, and something, frankly, that was anything but too soon.