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 The programming I caught on WFSB-TV as I left Senior Fauver to study—stopping at Pi Café for the iced coffee—is obsolete.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