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The Titan submarine tragedy turned our feeds into a morbid circus

The hunt for Oceangate’s missing vessel swept up meme artists, amateur sleuths, and the Titanic obsessed

Titanic tourist submersible disappear on an expedition to explore the Titanic. Photo: OceanGate/ Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Stories of wrecks, storms, and lost ships have long captivated humanity — going back to The Odyssey and Noah’s Ark. There are stories of missing ships and shipwrecks that have become moments in history, like the Mary Celeste or the Edmund Fitzgerald, but even more recent incidents, like the Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021, have become collective obsessions. There is nothing quite like something going terribly, terribly wrong in the water to grab the world’s attention.

So, though tragic, it was no surprise the news of the loss of the Titan submersible, owned and developed privately by tourism company OceanGate, became the internet’s cause célèbre. On Sunday morning, the submersible, with five men and 96 hours of air supply aboard, lost contact with its ship less than two hours into a planned eight-hour dive mission to the wreck site of the RMS Titanic. The Coast Guard wasn’t alerted about the missing craft until that evening, but they began a search on Monday in conjunction with the Canadian Coast Guard and military. That search came to a sad end on Thursday evening, when the US Coast Guard reported that identifiable wreckage of the Titan had been found on the ocean floor not far from the bow of the Titanic. All five men died.

When tragedy struck the Titan, the ocean was already on the internet’s collective mind, what with the orcas off the coast of Europe unionizing to attack boats together. Memes about the killer whales’ “war on the rich” abounded, as social posts related the killer whales’ crusades against yachts to the state of the world under capitalism — and the rallying cry to “eat the rich.” The social-media meme complex was primed to conceive of the sea as a perfect canvas for political commentary.

The narrative of the lost submersible was also a type of disappearance and rescue story that people obsessively follow and band together around. The search for the Titan combined the claustrophobic suspense of a “trapped in a cave” story with the fearful vastness of a “lost in a balloon” story. In past cases, people would watch for updates breathlessly as rescue efforts were made. Some outlets even had countdown clocks to indicate how much “time” is left for a successful rescue mission.

If the incident of the Titan wasn’t magnetizing enough for onlookers, there’s the Titanic of it all. A large proportion of people had an intense childhood phase of being specifically and intensely obsessed with the “unsinkable” ship, because of its movie adaptation or otherwise. Nobody’s obsession can hold a candle to James Cameron’s, however. Thanks to his expertise in Titanic wreck-diving, news outlets asked him to weigh in on the search — adding to the spectacle.

But while those news events are generally accompanied by a collective sense of anxiety and hope that the endangered victims will get out safely, people reacted to the lost sea vessel differently. This time, the tenor was far more unserious. Social media platforms were inundated with not only commentary and prayers, but absurd jokes and mockery. The submersible, custom designed to deliver wealthy tourists to the Titanic wreckage at a depth of 12,500 feet, already faced criticism years ago for CEO Stockton Rush’s decision to not subject the craft to inspection and certification by leading maritime agencies.

There’s even an Elon connection, via his Starlink service. Musk wasn’t directly involved in OceanGate (support vessels use Starlink, but the messaging system cannot be used underwater), but a distaste for his type of brash billionaire characterized a great deal of the public’s response to the tragedy. It’s easy to make comparisons between the hubris of the disastrous recent SpaceX launch and the news that the tail cone of the Titan submersible was found near the Titanic wreckage, as a result of a catastrophic implosion.

Some even characterized the catastrophe as revenge on behalf of the many lower-class victims of the Titanic disaster. Others pointed out how much attention the submersible news received, saying that in a just world, the current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean — in which hundreds of migrants drowned after a single overloaded ship sunk last week — would be receiving just as much sympathy and attention. Meanwhile, right-wing billionaire sympathizers have jumped to the Titan’s defense, blithely comparing the OceanGate passengers to heroic explorers of days past (despite the historical fact that said explorers were frequently far from rich).

It’s not a mystery why the OceanGate tragedy has taken over public discourse. But it is a parable for our time, as various new details emerge that are catnip to the internet, like the stepson of the Titan passenger attending a Blink-182 concert in the midst of the news frenzy. No matter your position, you probably have a take on the tragedy — and the more admonishing or outlandish the take, the more it will be amplified by Twitter or TikTok’s algorithmic echo chamber in order to provide timely entertainment to a wide audience eager for more content about the event.

Online, nautical disasters are a fandom in and of themselves, and OceanGate has become fodder for various communities. Over on BookTok, creators have been using the media frenzy around the Titan as an opportunity to promote their favorites in the tried and true genre of hubristic tales of exploration. On Steam, an indie game called Iron Lung, in which players control a submersible and navigate through the seas of an alien moon, spiked in sales.

There is something enduring about open-ended mysteries: they provide the most compelling angle for entertainment and obsession. And the ocean itself provides a perfect canvas — it’s still incredibly mysterious, far moreso, even today, than the polar regions or outer space. It provides nearly infinite opportunities to whet one’s appetite for the unknown.

These sorts of terrifying disappearances highlight just how vast and unknown parts of the Earth remain. As the OceanGate disaster developed, social-media users circulated a handy interactive example of the ocean’s depth that demonstrates the staggering depth of the sea. It’s big. The vastness of the ocean only seems to heighten the impulse for plugged-in onlookers to become amateur sleuths. When Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Pacific in 2014, internet-based communities of amateur investigators came together and spread various geopolitical conspiracies. (One would hope the news of the wreckage of the Titan being found on the ocean floor would prevent this kind of misinformation campaign, but these days, you never know.)

The urge to “get involved” seen in these cases is a similar impulse behind the many, many true crime communities online who take an active interest in solving not only cold cases but active ones — like the disappearance of Gabby Petito, which took over TikTok for weeks. It’s still not clear whether amateur detectives actually did anything to help solve the case.

These collective, collaborative communities of knowledge-gathering and analysis have the potential to do just as much harm as help. When everything is flattened into entertainment via social media, there’s not really a material difference between the ways that digital communities allow people enjoy fandoms for TV shows and movies. The internet allows people to feel like they are part of something big and important, like solving a real life mystery or helping right a wrong, even if they’re just making a meme, in poor taste or otherwise.

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