The internet has taken our processing time for a national tragedy and reduced it to nothingness. We find out about an event; a shooting, a bombing, an earthquake, a hurricane, and all the devastation that is left in its wake. And then we talk about it. Almost immediately. In fact, the medium through which we find out about the tragedy and the place where we talk about the tragedy are one and the same. I don’t go to CNN for regular updates. I only go to The New York Times for arts news. Frankly, because it’s too depressing to me to check it on a daily, or hourly, basis like some people do. I go to social media instead. Social media will filter all the news that is relevant to me and put it in one place, along with my friends, my family, and even some people I don’t really like but can’t seem to delete because I’m too invested in their virtual life. Social media is a freaking miracle. It’s an amazing tool and a wonderful place…until it’s not.
When a tragedy strikes (Paris, Roseburg, Boston, and far too many more) social media goes nuts. We all know this. I’m not stating anything new. We start talking about the tragedy before we even know all of the details. I’m 24 and I barely remember a world without the internet. However, I can imagine that many years ago, in the 1990’s, when a tragedy struck thousands of miles away, it wouldn’t be until the nightly news or the next morning’s paper that you heard about this specific piece of news. And then it would be a few hours to a full day until you were able to engage with another person, who was not your immediate family, about this situation.
Today, Social media has removed any and all processing time. We are talking about the event AS IT IS HAPPENING. We are talking about our emotions the minute we feel them. We are expressing the sympathy, the empathy, the hurt, the pain, the fear, and every other emotion immediately as we feel it.
I was in Boston for the Marathon bombings. I was a senior at Emerson College and I was in tech for a show in a theater seven large city blocks away from the attack. I was completely safe and I’m grateful for where I was on that day. And then the city shut down to find the suspect. That’s when I really got scared. That’s when I really started to lose myself to this engulfing feeling of fear. I was staying at a friend’s apartment in the North End because I couldn’t bear to be alone. It was nothing short of my personal nightmare. Let me say again that I was always perfectly safe during this entire situation, but I was still experiencing the collective fear of the city along with my own personal fear about my individual safety. I posted a status on Facebook. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was something along the lines of “I’m really freaked out, will this situation ever end? When are we going to be safe again?” Moments later, a friend private messaged me asking me to take the status down because it perpetuated a state of panic already very prevalent on Facebook and we didn’t have all the information yet. I took the status down, not because I thought he was right (though in retrospect he probably was) but because he helped me realize that the status was made entirely out of pure fear without taking time to process.
I tell you this story because social media is such a direct channel for emotion these days. During the bombings, when I didn’t have anyone to reach out to and talk to about my fear, I wrote online. It wasn’t a helpful response. It probably wasn’t a healthy response. However, it was my raw response for what I was feeling in that specific moment.
Can we attempt to look at our own fear in the moment and evaluate it more logically before posting so hurriedly from a place of raw emotion? Can we attempt to acknowledge the fearful and the hate-filled responses on social media with an awareness that the person might just be reacting out of pure, visceral emotion?
I’m not asking you to accept the people who respond to hate with hate. I’m not asking you to accept the people who respond with reactions that are racist, sexist, hurtful, or harmful. I am going to ask that you accept that people respond individually, immediately, and often very emotionally. Please realize that people’s first reactions may not be their true beliefs and their true feelings. It might just be what they are feeling in that moment. They may be reacting out of fear for the world. They may be reacting out of fear for their own safety. I just ask that you be patient and let people process. I also ask that if you have a habit of posting emotionally, like I often do, to take a moment and process on your own before posting on a public forum. We all have individualized ways of dealing with terror. It’s a tragedy that tragedy happens so frequently in today’s society. So let’s try to make the world a little kinder by taking time to process in our own private ways and also by attempting to understand those people who need to get their feelings out in a very public forum.
I posted this Kurt Vonnegut quote the other day, but it’s what I turn to in moments like this. Here it is again:
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.””
So let’s be kind and compassionate, yeah? Ok. Cool. I’m glad we agree.