Facebook Grief: An Argument for Offline Emotions

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, my first instinct is to tell you what I think about the rise of lawlessness and gun control and processing grief and media coverage of tragedy.

I think my first instinct might be wrong.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to express prayers, sympathy, or an emotional reaction on Facebook to this event or any other, or that you shouldn’t ever talk about issues, even complex ones, online. (Guys, I have a blog. This is what I do here all the time.)

Basically, though, I think it can be harmful if we express our emotions only, or even mostly, in a format that wasn’t meant to carry that weight. Using the Internet to process grief isn’t always a good solution. Here’s why.

I’ve been thinking recently about how social media culture, mass communication, and the Internet in general has changed us, especially how we react to evil in the world. Unlike even a few decades ago:

  • You can’t get away from bad news. We’re followed around by issues and anxiety and tragedy, poked and prodded into one sort of commentary or another by friends, acquaintances, or total strangers.
  • We can know what everyone thinks about anything. No level of trust has to be established before we hear others’ opinions on what used to be personal subjects—it’s all out there. We’re surrounded by thoughts, typed impulsively next to tiny pictures of people we know that sometimes we feel that we don’t know them at all, that they couldn’t really mean it that way—and what was meant to bring us together pushes us apart. It makes people feel less personal. Easier to hurt. Easier to hate.
  • Our opinions can suddenly be heard and interacted with by a large audience of people. Some days, everyone responds/misunderstands/disagrees and it feels like we went from a nice chat to the Hunger Games cornucopia in five seconds flat. Other days, no one replies, and that makes us feel badly too—as if we don’t matter at all.

I’m not sure what sociologists’ official conclusions about all this would be, but for me, it’s a five-layer cake of existential weirdness. (That’s an official term, by the way.)

One conclusion I’m coming to is that I process too much, sometimes, in public spaces. Sometimes my own dirty laundry, but mostly the world’s, the church’s, my country’s, strung out neatly on a line for everyone to see and react to.

It’s not all bad. Even this blog is my way of starting some productive conversations, and it has, especially with people I already know.

I wonder, though, what it does to my level of empathy when it can be drained dry time after time by a parade of headlines and statues and reactions. Will I still be able to love my neighbor—even notice my neighbor—when so many other voices are louder and more all-present?

I wonder if I get too much validation out of blog comments and shares and likes, if the reason I want to speak is to hear myself talk, or at least to be known and appreciated. At the end of the day, are my opinions all about me?

I wonder how many more times I’m going to speak too soon or too forcefully about something I don’t know much about. The Internet is full of self-made experts, and I can join them with the push of a “Publish” button. Through years of practice, I can also tell a story, spin a phrase, draw a crowd. But—in classic Jurassic-Park-quote sense, but without the dinosaurs—should I, just because I can?

As usual, all I really have to offer you are questions. That, I think, might be good. It seems like lots of people are offering answers and stances and solutions at full-blast volume everywhere you look (but wait, there’s more—we’ll throw in some biased commentary for free!), so the least I can do is bring a few questions to balance things out.

There are only a few things I’m sure of:

In a loud world, we need more time for silence.

In an opinionated world, we need more thoughtful uncertainty that pursues answers but doesn’t assume they’re always going to be clear or easy.

In a crazy, violent, mixed-up world—when we ourselves have selfish, anxious, mixed-up hearts—we need more truth and less noise, and sometimes that means turning to praying instead of posting, resting instead of ranting, talking things through with a friend instead of the Internet at large.

This isn’t about standing by and refusing to take action on important issues. It’s not about editing all opinions out of our social media (although I’m a huge fan of being more gracious online).

My challenge is simply this: don’t let your online emotions become your only ones.

Mourn in real life, in prayer and in conversations about how we can do better. Love your actual neighbor instead of only eulogizing people you never knew. Take the long route to form an opinion, collecting different perspectives and considering other sides, instead of reacting to every news item that comes along.

And know that you are a person, not a selfie. You’re living a life, not a content feed. What you think and feel is significant, even if the masses don’t hear it. It may not change the world or even gather a lot of “likes”—but it will change you and the way you interact with others. And that matters.

5 comments

  1. As a very introverted, quiet person in real life, I think I in many ways found a bit of a release in the internet. In not having to face people as I share with them; in being able to speak to “tiny pictures of people” (which is a cool phrase, by the way). So I have a lot of experience with getting into nasty arguments, using my internet “friends” to rant to or express grief or whatever emotion I’m going through to, and just … letting myself not really feel deeply. It’s a way to hide from emotions, to not be vulnerable, to not let anything be real.

    You’re right! That’s not a good thing. I need to actually get out, live in the real world. It’s important. I’m hoping to start living a little more now … though it’s certainly not a very easy task when it’s so much easier to hang out with the unseen friends and followers. 😉

    1. And I do want to be careful to say that it’s not bad to connect with people virtually. I’ve seen lots of great conversations happen even on Facebook. But, like you, I worry that it makes it both too easy and too hard to be vulnerable. Easy to blurt out unfiltered thoughts to anyone in Internet-land, hard to actually look someone in the face and be honest. We’ll work on it together, Kellyn!

      1. Yep, I’m definitely guilty of blurting out unfiltered thoughts! There are some great goods that can come from all the talk on social media, but … a lot of bad stuff can come from it to. I suppose just balancing the amount of time you spend on the internet can help, though. 🙂

  2. I applaud your main points here – the wisdom of silence, patience, love of real-life next-door neighbors, the gathering of perspectives, the grounding of identity in Christ rather than in online metrics. But … this current tragedy is not something brand new and out of the blue that we’ve had insufficient time to process. It’s the latest and worst in a long, long line of similar incidents. So if we’ve been even the least bit awake in the past few decades, emotionally we should be ready to go on this one. Any responsible citizen should be more than sufficiently prepared right now to engage on the issues to prevent needless tragedy. It would be a culpable abundance of caution to say nothing about the issues at hand, including the need to curtail our nation’s gun culture. Your main points still stand, and I agree with them.

    1. I think that’s a good distinction, Stephen. Thanks for sharing it. Maybe it’s just in my personal circles, but what I’m seeing on social media isn’t people engaging on the issues behind violent attacks, or even arguing about controversial related political issues. It’s mostly just people being sad online and expecting that to make them feel better. I don’t think it is, and I think we increasingly expect shallow Internet relationships to work the same way offline friendships do. When they don’t, we become more frustrated and lonely than ever.

      In some ways, I think online venting makes us less likely to be thoughtful about and actually do something about real issues—like saying we’re praying/grieving is a box we check and nothing else needs to be done. All that said, I think your clarification is good: it’s not responsible to not think about/act on relevant issues (although I don’t think it’s wise to share all of them on social media).

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