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Social media posts demean human tragedies
Published 9/20/2012 6:00:00 AM
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My Facebook newsfeed blew up on Tuesday, Sept. 11- how predictable.

Pictures, videos and inspirational quotes were in abundance as people made a show of support for the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center 11 years ago.

Often unintentional, using social media to tackle serious, heavy topics can cheapen and belittle those topics in a blurb on a news feed.

Consider that most posts reflect as much about the user as they do the actual content of the post.

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and vlogs have become a stage upon which users perform for their friends. When people post an update they are performing “facework,” or the upkeep necessary to maintain their own image for a perceived audience.

Anyone who wants to be known as compassionate, funny or insightful can post something conveying that precise quality. As vain as it sounds, nearly everyone with a social media account, consciously or unconsciously, performs “facework” on a regular basis.

Today, I see no shame in that. Our online presence has become an integral part of our identities, so it is natural to try and promote that identity.

However, this idea of “facework” also applies to complex, somber topics such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and this is where I take issue.

Based on personal scrutiny of my Facebook homepage last week, it seems nearly every post about the 9/11 tragedy was not designed to express grief or establish support from a close network of friends. They all seemed to say to the audience member, “Look how empathetic and patriotic I am. Like it if you are, too.”

The tragedy is degraded into a method of boosting personal image, all in 140 characters or less.

If these people experience sincere distress, one has to question if they would post about it online to hundreds of their acquaintances.

Genuine grief should never endure belittlement. When looking for an outlet for emotion, young people should first look toward the real world for comfort.

Colorado native and freelance writer Susan Kemp has encountered two tragedies within her life that hit close to home, but only one was affected by social media.

In a July article for the Huffington Post, Kemp compares her experience related to the 1999 Columbine shootings to that of the Aurora movie theater shootings this past summer. She feels social media has had a negative impact on the grieving process of traumatized individuals by dehumanizing the tragedy.

“…my middle school was on lockdown while 15 minutes away students were running out of Columbine High School, my friends and I had each other... We talked. We worked things out as best as we could in our 13-year-old minds,” Kemp said.

Comparatively, she found out about the Aurora shootings over Facebook, even though they took place five minutes from her childhood home.

The responses from a large, well-connected and personally less-invested audience were anything but helpful.

Kemp said, “When a story trends online, everyone has to get in their share to show that they are on top of things. That's how these words about the shooting felt to me: cold and half-engaged, like everything else you read on the Internet.”

The new medium casts too wide a net. People not directly affected by an event can still give their input, but this popular involvement simply does not suit the included content. Social media has a short attention span that cannot and should not be applied to tragedy.

It feels wildly inappropriate to scroll past a post commenting on the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the Aurora shootings and then see between them, “Gunna FAIL this chem exam lolol!” and, “Time to get schwasted tonight #freakinweekend #gocougs.”

Their parallel presentation attempts to equalize these posts when in fact they are not equal. The status regarding a heartbreaking incident is clearly the more loaded topic, but they all disappear into the depths of Internet history.

Psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude discussed the effects of social media on the grieving process last July in an article for the Stanford School of Medicine blog. He feels that if Facebook had existed in 2001 it would have negatively affected the way users approached the terrorist attacks.

“Our patience for one dominant story, regardless of how tragic or massive, is not what it used to be,” he said. “I wonder whether we would have had a harder time giving the event the full attention and intense soul-searching it deserved.”

So next time your Facebook update deals with heavy material, pause for just a moment to consider your motivations:

Don’t use tragedy to monger for “likes.” Don’t use social media to replace human interaction in times of grief. Don’t use a fleeting and unsuitable backdrop to present a sustaining and serious issue.

Maybe this time, you’d better just log off.


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