Prayers are sent via tweets, love is expressed through Facebook, solidarity is captured through the haze of an Instagram filter. Everything, tagged and counted.
The day of the Boston bombings, Twitter read like a makeshift vigil. A mix of sincere prayers, sad emoticons, and “hearts going out to Boston” inundated my feed. By the next day, it was gone. Crappy jokes about CNN and questions about the authenticity of various Daft Punk leaks replaced the deep sorrow that had dominated social media just 24 hours before. It was as if the act of writing a status served the dual purpose of mourning while being liberated from talking about it ever again.
It’s a sad testament to the past few months—Hurricane Sandy, Newtown, the Boston Marathon—that the complex relationship between tragedy and social media is even worth discussing. Social media, to say “I’m okay” when panic ensues and phone lines fail, has been a blessing. Social media, the messenger for expressing condolences and sharing sympathies, represents something more complicated.
No one wants to talk about how social media is changing the way we grieve. There are countless articles on how the digital age has changed journalism, but commentary on how people cope during a disaster feels invasive. Paradoxically, grieving has become an all-access, public event where streams of consciousness are immortalized in feeds. Prayers are sent via tweets, love is expressed through Facebook, solidarity is captured through the haze of an Instagram filter. Everything, tagged and counted.
It speaks to our generation-defining fomo in the worst way possible, our constant desire to feel involved, even if involved just means being sad together. But it’s a misleading sense of togetherness – a togetherness predicated on computer screens and the manicured digital identities we create for ourselves. We rely on our status updates as a source of comfort rather than talking to the person sitting next to us. We want the opportunity to connect, especially during times of confusion, even if we have no immediate connection to the events we see playing across our feeds.
A Facebook page for grieving. It later appeared on a Facebook page resale site for $1,000.
Companies who don’t want to appear “out of touch” take their cues from their followers and fans. Pre-Facebook and Twitter, brands would have spent hours crafting a public statement that actually made sense. Feeling the pressure of increased visibility and public scrutiny, condolences are fired off only to be followed by a “Spring savings sale this weekend!” tweet an hour later. Watching the awkwardness of public figures and brands in the wake of tragedy has become part of the spectacle. In some ways, it’s more comfortable and more entertaining to point to the obvious examples of insensitivity rather than admit that social media is cheapening the way that we all show our support for one another, the way we communicate.
As we’ve seen in real time, the tweets and status updates unfold faster than the news does. We immerse ourselves in a feed full of sympathies and angry statuses about “the world we live in” until we’re emotionally exhausted. The irony is that we feel like we’ve been grieving for a lifetime, and meanwhile we don’t even know who we’re mad at and what really happened.
The way friends and family members communicated with each other during the Boston Marathon and Hurricane Sandy proves that social media can be one of the most important tools we have during an emergency. But in the aftermath of a tragedy, social media has become our crutch. Face it: online, we’re the shiniest version of ourselves. We are the funniest in 140 characters, we are the prettiest through an Instagram filter, but we are by no means our most human or empathetic. Sharing an image with a quote from Mr. Rogers is easier than searching for the words that resonate with us most. Liking a status is easier than calling a friend and struggling to articulate blind frustration. The problem is that grieving and making sense of injustice was never meant to be easy.
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