Last Friday, I learned of the attacks in Paris on Twitter, where rapid-fire updates offered bits and pieces of the scene: bombs outside a stadium, gunmen at a death-metal concert, an anguished world following along.
On social media, you are what you post. So what would I say or share? Tweeting anything—even cautionary advice to wait for the facts—felt like centering myself in a tragedy that was not mine. How could I indicate to France, to my followers, that I cared? Sitting in a Chicago café thousands of miles from Paris, I almost felt like I wasn’t fully experiencing my feelings of grief and sympathy and pain, unless I shared them. I hit the retweet button a few times, then called Mom.
When we grieve, the limits of social media activism become clearer. It’s a lesson we re-learn with each global crisis or viral cause, dating back to Kony in 2012. After our Facebook pages became dotted with red, white, and blue overlays, we began to hear pushback against the “superficial” social media responses. Salon called the move “an empty signifier of sympathy that rings hollow in the face of ongoing and very real threats of violence.” (A Washington Post editorial even suggested the flag has come to symbolize “support for France’s extreme right, and for their anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist policies.”)
Are we just posturing in order to appear empathetic and build our personal brands? In the most cynical view of these trending campaigns, we’re all pretending to give a damn before we go back to posting about the minutiae of our personal lives, our least favorite presidential candidates, and the latest shocking celebrity gossip. Avatars and hashtags can’t change us.
I’m a little more optimistic about our motives, even if the results at times prove to be imperfect or shallow. Before social media, how would we be expected to grieve the lives of people we had never met, of people we may have never known existed until they died? What precedent exists for mourning realities that our own have hardly touched?
Most of us wish we could do more to respond to school shootings, kidnappings, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. But our role in most of these events is limited and distant. I’d like to think the users who change their Facebook photos are the kinds of people who, given the chance, would be there to hand out a Kleenex, take over a casserole, or cry with someone. They would attend candle light vigils and prayer services. And, more than anything, they would want to sit and listen.
Social media, though, offers no “active listening” option. Silence seems to indicate you are not paying attention (which is why people often publicly announce their breaks from social media, lest followers assume they have turned indifferent, or disappeared). But saying nothing could also mean you’ve been taking in post after post of news, response, and emotional turmoil, and still don’t know what to say—or if it’s even worth saying.
Our online platforms are intrinsically designed for instant updates, discouraging contemplation before opining, reflecting before posting, meditating before liking, praying before publishing. Changing our social media avatar can be seen as passive, but it’s also an unobtrusive way to signal that you are also paying attention.
Even Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, acknowledged this earlier this year when addressing why the site would not add a “dislike” button. “People aren’t looking for an ability to downvote other people’s posts. What they really want is to be able to express empathy,” he said. “Not every moment is a good moment, right? And if you are sharing something that is sad, whether it’s something in current events like the refugee crisis that touches you or if a family member passed away, then it might not feel comfortable to ‘like’ that post.”
More and more, we are looking to our screens for answers. Some say such convenience, such easy access to information and to people, deceives us into thinking that we can be part of the solution without lifting a finger. And while I do believe Americans in particular could use more political activism and involvement in real life, the lure of social media activism isn’t going away. Facebook and Twitter continue to entice us because they allow us to “tell it like it is” in real time. They feed our emotional hunger in an instant way that in-person outlets cannot.
But while social media may be the most convenient, it’s obviously far from the only refuge. Perhaps we can encourage one another to turn to art as a way to respond to suffering and tragedy. Some of us will head to pianos or guitars to craft chords and lyrics. Others will retreat in studios to edit photos or spread ink across a canvas. Others will write lines of poetry or prose in their diaries or in letters to the people they are most scared of losing. Some will garden. Some will clean their kitchens in masterful ways.
Making art does not force you to pretend that you have a personal connection with a tragedy. It does not feign being an ultimate call to action. Rather, it asks us to wrestle with our emotions in a more sophisticated, beautiful, and enduring way. More than that, art creates space for communal reflection. In art, we talk to God, we honor our feelings, and see other people’s pain.
When we have the impulse to do something or say something, we need not turn just to social media since it’s the easiest option. Let us also turn inward, to each other, and to God.
Morgan recently interviewed MIT’s Sherry Turkle about relationships in the social media age for Her.meneutics.