The Price of Responding to the Social Media Signal

Friday, April 1, 2016 - 5:08 am

The Price of Responding to the Social Media Signal

First, my feed fills up with the news of a particular tragedy: the terrorist attack in Brussels. Thirty dead. Dozens wounded. With each status update and tweet, we signal our sadness over a world where violence is so rampant and unpredictable.
Then, almost like clockwork, my feed fills up with a second kind of signal. People expressing their outrage that so many are sad about one tragedy while another goes seemingly unnoticed: the suicide bombing in Lahore. Sixty-nine killed. Three hundred and forty one injured. Then the suicide bombing in Iskanderiyah. Forty-one killed. One hundred and five wounded. With each status update and tweet, we signal our anger over a world where some bodies are literally valued more than others.
I understand the impulse behind both of these now predictable “waves” of response to global tragedy. We live in a time of devastating 24/7 news and the omnipresence of social media — a tool with which we are compelled to construct a version of ourselves online, hour-by-hour. Though we may not be able to prevent such tragedies or inequities that lead to these tragedies, we, no doubt, feel some iota of efficacy when we post a link. At least we’ve done something.
But what does all the signaling add up to?
When it comes to some forms of grief and outrage, I have lived the power of social media. I came of age on the Internet, writing for a blog called Feministing (which is still kicking ass and taking names under fresh, brave leadership). We realized that we didn’t need to ask for anyone’s permission in order to describe the world through our own eyes, to gather and to express our frustration over a revolution still unfinished. A whole generation of feminism was fomented there, and so much measurable change was made.
Only a fool would overlook the paradigm shift that #BlackLivesMatter and the decentralized movement that followed has catalyzed. We, an unprecedentedly huge range of Americans, are finally talking about race in this country in a nuanced, constructive, and even spiritual way. Fortune Magazine just named the three co-founders — all self-identified queer women of color“some of the world’s greatest leaders.” For what it’s worth, that never would have happened before it became de rigueur to express grief and anger on social media.

(Joe Brusky / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

But even as I champion the power of these tools in these times, there is another part of me that acknowledges that the constant signaling has a price. Our attention is finite. Our energy for action is limited. These tools may lead some to gather and create real relationships or finally compel others to seek out more learning about an issue they’ve never really understood, as is surely the case in Black Lives Matter.

But some of us — all of us, at some point, with some issues — signal and then move on. Signal. Move on. Signal. Move on. Signal. Move on. Signal. Move on. Signal. Move on…
I fear that we are coarsened by the rhythm of it. It’s not ritual — the container that human grief hungers for — it’s performance. It’s not enigmatic, as all efforts to truly understand violence necessarily are; it’s categorical. It’s not in the language of the soul; it’s in the language of the superego.
I guess what I’m hungry for — and I’m still working this out in my own heart — is a wiser way to know which tools to use at which times. When does something that happens in the world, in my country, in my neighborhood, demand that I post a signal on social media, adding to a necessary and potentially very effective chorus? When am I called to engage with my grief and outrage in a more embodied, slow, or quiet way? What does that second way even look like? Like this mass anti-violence movement? Like asserting the visibility of a victim of police violence? Like sustaining the memory of lives lost in an act of terrorism?
I’m asking these questions in part because I think the world deserves answers. But, I’m also asking them for selfish reasons. I want to sustain my own human heart, my sensitivity, my softness, my capacity to be broken. I want to be able to read about death and process it — as much as is humanly possible — as the loss of a life, a life as real as my own, as my mother’s, as my daughter’s. It’s not self-flagellation. It’s real and true and leads to a deep dive into the tragedy and mystery of life as it really is. I want all of that. Life is too short to only exist at the surface level of status updates. While I’m here, I want to be awake, even if it hurts like hell.
I know that I can’t do that every day, with every piece of news that I am exposed to. I know that we shouldn’t shun social media altogether. It’s so powerful. It’s so inevitable. I only wish that we, that I, could be more adept at employing a wide variety of responses to this brutal, beautiful world. I have a hunch that the protection of our grief, one of the essential elements of our humanity, depends on it.

Andrea Dondolo, a South African actress and activist, for women on Table Mountain in Cape Town as part of One Billion Rising, to call for an end to violence against women and girls. (UK Department for International Development / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.