A recipe for notoriety: Take any bad or scary thing and add technology.
Too-young teenagers hook up, but when they use their iPhones for dirty talk it becomes fodder for the 11 o'clock news. Kids reliably slam into stuff, but when the collision is with a robot mall cop, the story goes viral. Men kill sex workers fairly often, but when a man finds his victim through Craigslist, it's the stuff of made-for-TV movies.
A random murder is a terrifying and tragic thing. It's neither more nor less terrifying and tragic because the murderer broadcast the deed in real time on Facebook, as the now-deceased Cleveland man Steve Stephens did this week.* As with those sexting teens and the Craiglist killer, there's no extra significance to the act beyond the obvious: These platforms are where we spend our time. A heinous crime in America in 2017 is likely to involve Facebook or Apple or Uber or Airbnb, because these are the products we use to conduct the non-criminal parts of our lives, too.
Consider: Social-media livestreaming has existed for a couple years now. There's a reason the first livestreamed murder didn't happen on Meerkat or Periscope, the apps that pioneered the genre. They don't have the raw audience numbers to make it inevitable.
It's possible, as Steve Coll notes, that "Facebook Live might stimulate violence that might otherwise occur," inspiring unstable or attention-hungry people to go out in a blaze of digital infamy. As he points out, organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda are consciously altering their tactics in favor of graphic spectacles that spread virally on YouTube and Twitter.
But you don't have to accept that premise to be horrified. It's enough to realize that, when Steve Stephens shot a random shopper in the head and livestreamed the aftermath, he was using Facebook's video tools exactly as they were intended to be used. When Mark Zuckerberg introduced the new feature, he said it would result in people sharing "personal and emotional and raw and visceral" content they otherwise wouldn't post. You can't get more visceral and raw than murder.
That's another reason, in a nation where guns kill more than 10,000 people each year, this killing has us so freaked out. A video is indeed visceral and immediate in a way a photo, for instance, isn't. Just as surely, newspaper readers were uniquely disturbed the first time a color photo of a dead body appeared on page one, and radio listeners were appalled when they first heard the screams of those wounded in battle after having only seen them described in print.
And that should give us particular pause, because where Facebook is now headed, a shaky cell phone video of a murder will soon seem as quaint as a grainy black-and-white photo. At Facebook's F8 conference on Tuesday, Zuckerberg confirmed yet again that he sees virtual and augmented reality as the next major computing platforms. He's doing everything he can to bring them closer to universal adoption; Facebook's nearly two billion members gives him a better chance than anyone at making it happen.
Now consider: If live video of a routine tragedy has the visceral power to shock us with its novelty, what happens when we witness a killing in 360-degree 3-D video? What about an immersive VR experience wherein your avatar is the victim, or the killer? Facebook says it won't allow "content" like murder on its platform. But it's still building tools that will make these things possible--if not inevitable.
It's only a matter of time. Just as Steve Stephens was.
*Correction: While Stephens has been widely referred to as the "Facebook Live Killer," Facebook has said an initial police report claiming he broadcast the murder live was not accurate. Stephens did use Facebook Live to talk about the murder after it happened.