WesleyingSpeak: Tragedy and Facebook Statuses

I wrote an essay this afternoon, at roughly 2:30 PM, mostly out of frustration and a kind of helplessness. It is my hope that people will identify with these feelings and that, whatever form grief takes, we will continue the essential constructive dialogue that today’s events call for.

We no longer huddle around the television to learn about national news. As the piece below relates, what we do now is experience news in what I believe is a bizarre and fragmentary way. National tragedies amplify this strangeness. Grief is to be shared. With whom? What does it mean to “share” in the Facebook age?

As I sit in a silent room, drinking coffee I purchased with my WesCard, trying to construct an outline for a final paper due soon, I am struck by how pristinely collegiate my life is. The parking lot outside this window is reserved for registered vehicles. I needed access to enter this building. A majority of the people walking down the street I recognize as students. My computer case is branded with a big W.

Forty miles away, the residents of Newtown, Connecticut are in hell. Schoolchildren have been murdered. A principal has been shot. An entire classroom of students seems to have disappeared. Medical examiners from neighboring states have been called in to help autopsy the bodies; Connecticut does not have enough personnel.

Forty miles away, I scour the Internet for breaking news on the mass shooting. Twitter carries updates from sources like Slate, The New York Times, BBC Breaking News, and Mother Jones. The programming I caught on WFSB-TV as I left Senior Fauver to study—stopping at Pi Café for the iced coffee—is obsolete. New information has replaced the old, and in ten minutes it will happen again.

I have the urge to check Facebook. Perhaps I can eavesdrop on a stimulating conversation about gun control. Perhaps I can leapfrog onto a website with a more accurate, up-to-date account of the shooting. Perhaps my newsfeed will be replete with insight, critical thinking, something.

What I see is status after status with the same message: “I can’t believe this terrible tragedy happened. My heart goes out to all the victims and their families.” “Connecticut is in my prayers.” “Heartbroken for all those affected by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.”

I want to be clear: I don’t know anybody in Newtown, Connecticut. I do know people who know people in Newtown. But I am willing to bet that a sizable portion of my Facebook friends don’t know anybody in Newtown. And every thirty seconds for the last two hours, a new condolence message appears at the top of my newsfeed.

Why do my Facebook friends feel compelled to write a status about an incident which does not immediately and directly involve us (not “us” as in “society,” but “us” as in “the hundreds of people who make these statuses, who don’t know anyone from Newtown, and me”)? To be sure, we suffer when made aware of the suffering of others, especially when our communities overlap. I do not question their right to feel this suffering: we are all entitled to suffer; in fact, we must bear the suffering of others in order for it to have meaning to us, and for it to change the status quo. A fundamental condition of humanity is empathy. That’s why tragedies of this sort hurt us: we recognize the preciousness and precariousness of life, and we need to do something. So is it out of empathy that we write such Facebook statuses? Is it for the victims? Do we address Newtown when we post these elegies?

I think it’s safe to say, no, we don’t. Account modifications notwithstanding, our statuses are only visible to our Facebook friends. Is it for these “friends” that we write? What does a friend’s message of solidarity with someone other than myself (i.e., a resident of Newtown), a person who cannot read the status, communicate to me, the reader of the status? Facebook is nothing if not an interface for the producers and consumers of content; a status is nothing if not read. “Like” it or not,  the status-reader has become involved in the making of the statement.

Or is it enough simply to have posted the status, without the confirmation of “likes” or of its having been read? Do we send these condolence messages to everyone, to no one, merely so we can satisfy ourselves with the knowledge that we care? What better way to prove we care than to say we care? Twitter represents the triumph of the individual over the collective. Is a Facebook status a tweet?

I am not so cynical as to believe that behind every status of solidarity lurks a solipsist with a guilt complex. But I am also not so naive as to believe that my Facebook friends expect their goodwill to reach Newtown. To those who say, “What right do you have to judge me on how I choose to express my grief?” I would respond, “You’re not asking the right question. I am not suggesting that grief is any less authentic in a Facebook status than it would be in a face-to-face conversation. I am not judging your grief. But the only reason I can say I’m not judging your grief is because I know you are grieving; the only reason I know you are grieving is because I read your status.”

Violence of this scale and of this perverseness boggles the mind and the tongue; it demands awe, and yet it must not be met with silence. What has happened today must provoke important conversations. For us, the students whose lives are not immediately and directly changed by this trauma, the shooting forces us to confront a troubling dissonance: we know that Newtown is there, but we are here; what does this mean? I do not expect Facebook statuses to answer this question directly. But I do expect my Facebook friends, the ones like me, to acknowledge their readers.

Adam Isaacson ’13

13 thoughts on “WesleyingSpeak: Tragedy and Facebook Statuses

  1. Pingback: Counter-WesleyingSpeak: There Are Larger Issues Than Facebook – Wesleying

  2. '09 Alum

    Having just spent the past hour reading fb statuses regarding this tragedy, much of what you said resonates with me.

    However, I would also like to say that the condolence messages from complete strangers posted as comments to news articles after the Wes shooting in May ’09 were comforting and really meant a lot to me at the time.

  3. another anon

    just a thought: posting a condolence status makes us feel better about ourselves. It gives us a sense of validation, because we seek recognition and acceptance from our Facebook peers. Making an explicit statement on a public forum allows for reassurance that we are Good People because once it is announced we are praying – it becomes legitimate.

    1. Person

      Posting a condolence status might make us feel better but it’s for a good reason, not some twisted self-congratulatory one. I “liked” a lot of condolence statuses but did not post my own. I think it’s important that social networking sites are flooded with empathy because it lets us feel connected in this incident that is so physically close to us but also so isolated from us at Wesleyan, as we took final exams completely isolated from such an absurd and unbelievable tragedy. I also shared in grief with close friends, in addition to posting on Facebook.

      Facebook has become a part of our social lives, accurate in reflecting what our personal interactions reveal aside from all the cat gifs. I don’t think it’s a problem that Facebook was a main message board for community discussion. It’s an important medium in that it can be both full of cat gifs AND resounding empathy.

      And also, if this had happened at a time when Wesleyan was not in its strangely-scheduled finals week and as everyone was leaving for home, we might have seen a larger in-person community gathering in the days that followed.

  4. Student '14

    It’s interesting the mix of statuses I’ve seen on my Facebook news-feed, some people grieving for our nation, others for their community, and others for people they know. I’m from western CT, a 20 minute drive to Sandy Hook. Some of my closest friends live in Newtown. What to me is local news is now national news. So many people I know are grieving. Also, violent crime was nearly unheard of in Newtown; prior to the shooting, there was 1 homicide in the past ten years. What I always thought to be a charming small town will now be irrevocably associated with this horrible event.

  5. M

    With all due respect, what’s wrong with you? 27 people are dead, 20 of them small children, and you choose to focus on Facebook statuses and question the legitimacy of other people’s reactions to tragedy. Did President Obama weep openly on television because he knows people in Newtown and felt the tragedy personally? No, of course not. He cried because he’s a parent and a human being. Likewise, we’re all paralyzed with horror and grief in the wake of the Newtown shooting because we are human beings. Speaking as someone who does know people in Newtown, what I saw on social media yesterday was almost encouraging to me. It was encouraging because it shows we’re not numb yet, which God knows we should be by now, after all the senseless killing this country has seen in the past 5 years alone. Would you have preferred to just see the usual stream of finals-related drivel on your news feed in the hours following the shooting? I fail to understand what you think you add to the discussion by writing and posting something like this.

    1. tuna Post author

      M,

      Thank you for sharing this. I fear I may have been unclear; I did not intend to “question the legitimacy of other people’s reactions to tragedy.” I think all reactions are legitimate, Facebook statuses included. What I did intend to illustrate is how Facebook, a social media platform, mixes my friends’ grieving processes – sharing their condolences in a status – with my own – combing the news, locking myself in a room, feeling an indescribable pain that resists catharsis. I wanted to show that people use Facebook for different reasons, and I wanted to acknowledge the millions of people, themselves paralyzed with horror and grief, who grieve less publicly. Aren’t we all human beings?

      Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but in a world where much of our interaction occurs invisibly, through screens (and, I think, unidirectionally), I believe it remains to be seen how grief, a both public and private feeling, is experienced and shared. I only meant to get that point across. The fact that you are encouraged by the solidarity of your Facebook friends encourages me, too.

    2. Adam

      M,

      Thank you for sharing this. I fear I may have been unclear; I did not intend to “question the legitimacy of other people’s reactions to tragedy.” I think all reactions are legitimate, Facebook statuses included. What I did intend to illustrate is how Facebook, a social media platform, mixes my friends’ grieving processes – sharing their condolences in a status – with my own – combing the news, locking myself in a room, feeling an indescribable pain that resists catharsis. I wanted to show that people use Facebook for different reasons, and I wanted to acknowledge the millions of people, themselves paralyzed with horror and grief, who grieve less publicly. Aren’t we all human beings?

      Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but in a world where much of our interaction occurs invisibly, through screens (and, I think, unidirectionally), I believe it remains to be seen how grief, a both public and private feeling, is experienced and shared. I only meant to get that point across. The fact that you are encouraged by the solidarity of your Facebook friends encourages me, too.

      -Adam

  6. Cassie

    good essay. well written and expressed some of my own thoughts. one thing to consider: would it have been a better world without this practice of posting condolences? this national tragedy happens, you go on FB and instead of people expressing their emotions (even if they don’t actually know anyone affected) you see silence, or just a link to an article, and a smattering of coherent thoughts on the problem. i don’t think this is preferable. as it is the FB community feels presumptuous, but supportive. on the day of the event I think that’s important.

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