In the wake of the attacks in Paris, there has been an outpouring of anger and grief on social media. There has also been a lot of commentary about the form that those feelings have taken. Some question why everyone is so upset by the Paris attacks but not the explosions in Beirut? Why is there a greater reaction to the Paris attacks than to the terror attacks on Garissa University in Kenya in April?
Is it ok to respond to tragedy with anger? With fear? With compassion? There are two questions that underlie the commentary on the social media response to tragedy. The first is: How should we feel when tragedy strikes? And the second question is: How should we express those feelings?
Joshua Andrew wrote an article for The Atlantic about grieving and social media. In it he mostly talks about how we share our personal tragedies and how our friends respond. Then he goes on to describe how some people responded to the collapse of the Hotel Montana during the earthquake in Haiti.
"Suddenly, an online space typically reserved for jokes and self-promotion is soaked in the earnest rhetoric of condolence and spirituality as people request prayers and thoughts," writes Andrew. "The transition feels strange and almost inappropriate. The easy snark and sarcasm that dominates comment-section discussion is replaced by promises of remembrance, but only for a moment, as presumably, the well-wishers then return to their regularly scheduled social media programming."
"The key is that in critical moments people switch from 'acting good' (portraying an unrealistically successful digital persona) and seeking status to 'being down' and seeking warmth and affiliation," Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology, told The Atlantic. "Users begin to acknowledge the greater community as something more than an affirmation indicated by a digital thumb. Focus shifts from a desire for an endorsement to a desire for support. Tragedy invites us to lay aside the 'I' of social media and embrace the 'we.'"
Garry Hare, a professor of media psychology, suggests that sites like Facebook may alter the way we grieve, "In theory, the newspaper can cover a tragedy and you could write a letter to the editor or comment on the website, but in almost all cases its going through an editor. Someone is actually editing our emotional reactions to something. We're learning that that this isn't a very good use of time...the more editors there are the less real communication will take place. When something does happen that is a tragedy people know where they can go for an unedited reaction. And that is new in the world of communication."
"It's a little ironic that social media would lend itself to telling the truth about tragedy. We're talking about a medium where the self is editable, and here we choose to use it to give voice to weakness," writes Andrew.
And I wonder if that is the most appropriate way to express our emotions about a public tragedy, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Maybe that is the most human approach to grief.