Compared with the world of our ancestors, is our digital life devoid of real connections, real delight, real love? The Robert E. Kelly phenomenon says no.
On March 10, a political science professor, highly respected in his field but otherwise obscure, tweeted to his followers, “I will be on BBCNewsMedia in 10 minutes to talk about the Korean impeachment.”
Just about everyone knows how minutes later, that live TV interview was gatecrashed by two tiny children and their mother in hot pursuit. In these few seconds of real life, Dr. Robert Kelly, was transformed into a real person, just like the rest of us, except that he and his family are now globally famous for it, and also globally beloved.
Someone at the BBC was one of the first to tweet in afterwards: “Nicely handled interruption Professor! Do you have any objection to me sharing the clip of that moment on BBC News?”
Wanting to protect his family’s privacy, Kelly tweeted back: “What would that mean, please? … Is this [the] kinda thing that goes 'viral' and gets weird?”
The answer was not long in coming.
“Breaking news overnight,” a friend tweeted. “It just got weird, very weird. Google your name.”
He was all over the web. His Twitter feed was going crazy. And critics and finger-waggers were completely swamped by a tidal wave of worldwide support:
- “Your kids are adorable. Thank you for cheering the world up.”
- “Your wife was amazing. Please tell her the internet said so.”
- “There is a patron saint of all telecommuting dads—his name is @Robert E. Kelly.”
- “Lovely family & lucky man!”
- “You remind us that we ALL share moments that make life sweet.”
What an acquittal for our digitized world. It is, after all, often blamed for degrading the real one—the one bequeathed us by ancestors who discovered real lands, grew real crops, and fought off real enemies with real tools of their own making.
But suddenly the Kelly family bursts in, awakening us to love—the love of a child for her dad, of a baby who would follow his sister anywhere, of a wife who would move heaven and earth to have spared her husband the embarrassment. They arouse in us feelings of delight and laughter over who we really are, and what we really care about.
Those feelings are not virtual. They’re real, and they come up all the time when we’re online. Remember when we watched Charlie bite his brother’s finger? As with the Kelly family, these endearing, forgiving children compelled us to turn to the person next to us at the office or at home or at school. “You’ve got to see this,” we said, and then we laughed and maybe even cried together.
Remember when we watched Isaac Lamb propose marriage? It wasn’t a spontaneous event, but an act of love that Isaac had nurtured in his heart, alongside his love for Amy and his belief in a marriage that “relies upon a supportive community.” Once he posted it, that community came to include us.
Every day people are posting things that fill them with tenderness or delight, from a brother’s devotion to his disabled sister to a policeman’s care for a barefoot man on a bitter cold night. A booming kindness industry organizes events that people are drawn to be a part of, like these citizens of San Francisco to a celebration for a child battling cancer. The feelings spread from friend to friend, around the city and around the world.
We hunger for it. Because we are born to love, and we need reminding of that. And if we choose, it’s amazing how these tools can help us remember, turn toward each other, and come together for good on a scale our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.
And if we’re thinking the bad and banal in our digital world is so much worse than theirs, who can say? It had to be tough to make sure the corn didn’t get eaten by crickets, or their homes destroyed by enemies or the elements. They also had to remember to look up at the sunset, and into each other’s eyes.
So, our shared life online isn’t just virtual. The digital tools we hold in our hands can help awaken and bind us to each other, and move us to live better and love more. So affirms Robert Kelly’s newfound worldwide fan-base, one of whom tweeted it clearly and simply: “I love you and your children!”
“The digital tools we hold in our hands can help awaken and bind us to each other, and move us to live better and love more.”