Social Media, Silence and Tragedy

My cat, in her Fortress of Solitude. Following the grand internet tradition of expressing emotions through cat pictures.

My cat, in her Fortress of Solitude. Following the grand internet tradition of expressing emotions through cat pictures.

Social media creates an interesting paradox. It allows us to express emotion communally. To work through fear and confusion and anger and sadness with likeminded individuals, in a way that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. When I watch a tragedy unfold, I can’t help but take a step back and look at how people are relating to it, and to each other.

I don’t comment on it, most of the time. In fact, I don’t say anything at all, most of the time.

I’m sure it makes me look callous, and unfeeling. Or at the very least self-centered and oblivious.

And therein lies the paradox. Social media creates a communal place to pour our emotions. To share them, and to work through them publically.

So what about those of us who don’t do public emotion?

Those of us who, when faced with something horrible happening are just as likely to stare dumbly at the imparter of the news and mold their face into some approximation of sadness or sympathy, or whatever is the expected outward expression of our inner turmoil

I’m not saying that I don’t feel sadness for the lives lost, or anger at the person or people who did hurt others. I’m not saying I don’t sympathize with those who feel pain or fear that something else is coming.

I feel it. Intensely. Deeply. To the point of paralysis.

But I can’t show it. Or at least I can’t show it in the way that is expected.

As I was writing this, I clicked over to Facebook to see Stephanie Zvan’s excellent post It’s Okay to Look Away and almost stopped writing this, because she said most of what I wanted to say. Then I realized that there was a piece that I could add. Her post is about consumption of the media streams. Mine is about participating.

The news feeds are horrifying, entrancing, hopeful, nerveracking and occasionally inspiring. But what they really are is all-encompassing. It’s hard to let yourself step away from them. Both from fear that you’ll miss new developments, yes, but also from fear that you’ll be disconnected from your community.

From the calls for businesses to stop their pre-scheduled tweets, to snippy comments about people still posting about their everyday angst while tragedy was unfolding, the twitter stream and the facebook feed leave no room for normalcy.

It is lovely as a community of support, but where does that leave those people who don’t process their emotions out in the open? Or who may process their emotions differently?

You see, I have roughly two outward emotional speeds for dealing with things which make me feel negative emotions: blank, or sobbing. I have to be angry far past the point of reason, or sad past all hope of cheering up before I will start shouting and crying. I don’t experience emotions on a binary, but I do express them on one. And neither of those extremes lend themselves to public expression. 

So I stay silent. Or post about nifty cuttlefish. Or comment on the rare posts that aren’t on-topic. And I read the comments saying that Everyone. Must. Be. Focused. On. This. Thing. and I feel profoundly and deeply alienated. It’s a big and scary thing to face a constantly scrolling outpouring of emotion when that’s not your mode of expression. It’s hard to figure out when you’re allowed to post your trite, silly comments about sea creatures again.

My defense mechanism is usually to actively resist posting the other things that I’m thinking about to distract me from the pain. This usually means avoiding Facebook altogether, but I’m tired of that. I’m tired of the eyes that judge the lack of public response as indicative of emotional disengagement. 

I know I’m not the only one. I see other people disappear, or make pithy comments. I see an uptick in certain people posting cat pictures or talking about cool space things. But they seem as profoundly alone as I feel. A small quiet boat in a sea where the waves actively push you to subsume yourself under them. 

But we’re not quiet because we’re self-centered, or oblivious, or ignorant or out-of-touch. We’re silent because the real conversation is happening inside our heads, we’re working it out in the solitude of our minds so that we can rejoin the conversation when the emotion isn’t so raw, isn’t so new. We may be silent because we don’t know how to respond. We may be silent because we don’t need to. We may be silent because we need to be, because that’s the only thing that keeps us from falling into hysterics in the grocery store parking lot.

So don’t judge our silence. We may not “Share if your thoughts are with Boston!!!1  ~’~<@”, but our thoughts are with Boston. We’re experiencing the same thing you are, in our own way.  We’re just doing it inside our heads.

4 thoughts on “Social Media, Silence and Tragedy

  1. Emily,

    I appreciate the thought you put into this post.

    Almost two years ago, on June 1, 2011, my wife and I lost our beloved daughter Miriam, 25 years old. In the aftermath of her unexpected death, many faces and voices appeared, as though in the fog, penetrating my sorrow, . Some of them said, in one way or another, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to react,” or “I put off coming here for a few days, because I didn’t know what to say.”

    I value the people who said such things (or showed thoughts like that in other ways), because I know they felt Miriam’s death, on our behalf, vividly — even people who had never met her.

    The only wrong reaction in my book was some variation on “Stop thinking about it,” or “try to get over it” — an attempt to shorten the grief process. To me, that is offensive and it never helps.

    It’s my opinion that any way a person reacts to sorrow, loss, grief is fine. We all do what we know how to do at any given moment.


  2. It sounds like social media is a horrible burden. One is expected to follow. One is expected to comment. Who imposes these expectations? Who is judging you? Why do you need to offer an explanation?

    People respond to events, personal and societal, in a variety of ways. Not everyone is effusive. Not everyone is trained as a Southern lady with a stock of comforting responses in reserve. Not everyone can cry on demand like a hypocritical politician. Sometimes it is the stunned silence or the sheer awkwardness that is most telling.

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