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The Mediocre and The Massive: Dealing with Grief in Online Social Networks

The earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan and surrounding Pacific areas are the major news stories today. The footage is difficult to view. The devastation is severe.

Twitter users are linking to videos and news stories faster than any one person could consume them. The ubiquitous linking is typical behavior for Twitter users, who like to experience world events as a group. The tweets in my stream fell into two general camps today: 1. Serious grief and/or fascination with Japan’s tragedy. 2. Typical subject matter. These are two conflicting uses of a social networking application, and tensions arise between users. What’s happening here? How are we supposed to act online when tragic events take over the world? I think this conflict has some unique aspects. We will use the accepted grief stages to give us insight into what is really happening for users online.

As many of you know, famous psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined 5 stages in the personal grieving process:  1.Denial and Isolation, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, and 5. Acceptance. These stages don’t have to occur in order, but even out of order, they don’t really apply to the social networking experience of tragic world events. Here are my updated stages for the online social network user:

1. Denial and Consolation: Denial is the shock and disbelief of that first link you see. Is it a joke? Is this legit? You click on the link, then the next one, then the next one, until you are satisfied that the tragic world event did indeed occur. Isolation turns into consolation, when users look to share information and opinions with others. At some point, the user becomes saturated with information and opinions and her desire to commiserate lessens.

2. Annoyance: Users express their frustration with others online who are not respecting or responding in the same manner. I saw more than one comment from users who were feeling the disconnection between the mundane and the major. Take these tweets from today, both of which have been retweeted:

It says: “The events in Japan are really a wake up call. Fashion, celebrity, everyday minutiae isn’t important. Family, friends, prayer & love are.” Tweet from user @bexmarie.

It says: “Natural disasters with such global impact as what #Japan & #Hawaii are facing really do put the minutiae of some tweets into focus, huh?” Tweet from user @msbruschetta.

It says: “Bitch said since japan had an earthquake ain’t no more sushi gon be made. WTF” Tweet from user @Marcshellafresh.

It says: “Its FAKE how people will do ALL this Prayin 4 Japan.post tweet.shed all these tears.but wont give $1 to the homeless man outside McDonalds” Tweet from user I_SpeakRealShit.

3. Engagement: Users may discuss their opinions on subjects surrounding the tragedy (e.g., survival rates, clean-up efforts, international aid money) with others, backing up their opinions with links, blog posts and other media. Some users feel the need to help, and begin to “donate” their updates by retweeting international organization tweets, like those of the Red Cross. Popular links are to grass-roots-type bulletin boards used for family and friends location and communications.

4. Depression or Internal Conflict: Users profoundly moved by the tragic event settle into a feeling of loss. They may stop tweeting for a bit, especially if they feel they’ve “done all they can” with their online social networking updates to help the victims of the tragedy. Others users, meanwhile, desire the return of the typical functionality of their online networks, but know they may be seen as superficial or trivial by other users. These conflicted users wonder what to do: Isn’t Twitter meant for trivial things? Why do I look like a jerk if I link to this Funny-or-Die video right now?

5. Normalization: Eventually almost all users will return to their typical tweeting behavior.

So, how do we all get along? Should there be a general rule during tragic events that no-one should tweet trivially? Is the grief experienced by the tragic event tweeter to be dismissed as surface and opportunist?

Before we answer these questions definitively, let’s consider another phenomenon called “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue is the description for feeling burnt out from  intense caregiving to victims of a tragedy or from being asked to apply deep feeling to a situation. While online users don’t usually come close to a clinical diagnosis of compassion fatigue or its symptoms of stress, depression, hopelessness, and negativity, I think we all experience a version of this fatigue when we are exposed to impossible amounts of information about a tragic event. At some point we move past feeling informed to feeling overwhelmed. In fact, I’d argue that online social network users are in a constant state of compassion fatigue, in amounts directly proportional with the time a user spends online. The general information/compassion fatigue is related to what the traditional news media producer feels daily: a total over-saturation of the human condition. A general cynicism and protective barrier around the more sensitive parts of one’s personality are needed to be able to weather the daily onslaught of bad news. In other words, being online all day isn’t for the weak.

So keep this constant basal state of compassion fatigue in mind when you see tweets of any nature. It’s difficult, but we need to respect each other’s usage. If a user wants to link like crazy to CNN updates that you don’t want to see, unfollow them for a bit or use a third party application to “mute” them for a few days. If you want to link to FAIL BLOG videos, feel free. Your affected followers may be disappointed to unfollow you or mute you, but that’s what they may need to do if I truly feel the gravity of the emergency situation. Tweet and let tweet, follow and let unfollow, of course. Online use involves a certain amount of hardened resolve, but we must not let our tolerance of others wane in the process.

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  • Mark Dykeman 12 March 2011, 5:50 am

    Excellent post. I heartily agree with the concept of “compassion fatigue” – it’s a shame how we can become desensitized to tragedy and suffering when we are relentlessly exposed to it. I would also suggest that not only does the amount of time spent online contribute to compassion fatigue, but also the number of info sources that we follow (i.e. other people) contributes to this as well, as we tend to get repetition of messages.

  • Bart 4 April 2011, 6:33 am

    Sometimes, when the bad news becomes too bad, some folks detach or witgdraw from all the pervasive coverage. Would that be asocial networking?