Communicating Loss

When my mother died five or so years ago, I didn’t know how to tell people.  I wanted to avoid talking about it, about why I missed a week of classes, about why I went social media silent. Instead of posting about it, I shared the eulogy I delivered at her funeral as a Note on Facebook. I think Notes were more popular at the time and her eulogy is sandwiched between a list of Shakespearean Porno Titles and a list of words that I discovered while writing my dissertation.  Looking back, a eulogy, a post, or a photo on Facebook are all completely inadequate to the task of sharing how much I lost when my mother died.

Me, My Mom, and My Brother – 80s Chic

So, why do we post about loss on social media?  In a way, it’s a fast way to alert everyone in your life about what’s going on. From the casual acquaintance to your best friend, everyone knows in a second that you’re in pain.  They can share this information with your co-workers and anyone who might accidentally bump into and ask an insensitive question.

For example, a dear friend of mine recently suffered a brain aneurysm. After calling everyone to let them know, his wife has used Caring Bridge to keep his friends and family updated.  She’s also used it to ask people for help covering her classes, keeping her daughters busy, and keeping the vast number of friends who are scientists on alert. She’s posted links to Caring Bridge on her and her husband’s Facebook, but everything else has been through CB. With their friends and family scattered all over the country, this format seems the best way to communicate – social media at its best.

At the same time, I think some people share loss, disease, and other pain on social media because they need to legitimize or call attention to their suffering. I see people on Facebook lap up the platitudes. They publicize drama and mourning in a way that offends my Midwestern reserve. Handle your shit quietly. Suffer in silence.  Be strong. However, I don’t know if that’s the answer either.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – I could see any of these used a way to share stories and create a group eulogy or hold a virtual funeral. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable streaming a funeral as this New York Times story suggests, but digital spaces and social media seem like they could become legitimate ways for people to share their stories and connect through loss.

Social Media Pillory

This week a friend of mine posted about her experience on a dating website. In doing so, she posted screenshots of her interactions with an extremely crude individual on Facebook. She is not alone; see the Instagram account, Bye Felipe. After posting the screenshots, one friend called the guy a “Douche.” My friend responded thusly, “Yeah. It’s a pretty common occurrence, and it shouldn’t be. Public shaming it is!”

This interaction sparked two responses for me. Let’s start with the first one. The amount of violence and sexually explicit language directed toward women online is atrocious. Douche2Women must be careful about their interactions online because men routinely threaten them with rape, hate f*cking, or just outright physical violence. As the screenshot my friend posted online shows, the guy behaves like a classic abuser and moves from “Please forgive me” to “Speak when spoken to” within a few hours.  Of course, this degenerates into vulgar descriptions of his penis, which also seems extraordinarily threatening when capped with “Dumb bitch.”  Almost every woman I know on a dating site, reddit, or other forms of social media has been threatened and called a bitch.

Conversely, my gay male friend who is also on an online dating site reports a different experience. He talks about purposefully teasing other members about their profiles. When I asked him about retribution, he was shocked.  He said, “Yeah, sometimes they say stuff back, but nobody threatens me. Does that happen to women?” I think his experience highlights how high the stakes are for women online.

However, my second response to my friend’s post is equally problematic. Sharing the experience and showing how women are treated on dating sites is a legitimate way to start a conversation on Facebook. In fact, describing the the experience seems like an overtly feminist move by uncovering systemic oppression. This setup video of men catcalling their mothers shows how effective a little shaming can be.

And yet, when my friend posted the screenshots, she shared his photo, his user name, and his city of residence. In effect, she placed him in a pillory. Now the wider public can share in humiliating him for his crimes. Unlike the real pillory that is tied to a specific location, the pillory of the interwebs is everywhere.  Social media has taken public shaming to a global level.

In a perfect world, a man would never send threatening messages to a woman. Nevertheless, we live in this world in which these activities happen all of the time.  As we move forward, we may need to think about the effects of public shame. If our goal is to reform these men and change their behavior, I am not sure the Facebook pillory is the best answer.

Digital Privacy

I subscribe to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, and a host of other websites that ask me to sacrifice my privacy for their use. They ask me to tag my photos, mark my location, and indicate when they were taken.  My browser tracks my searches and pushes marketing materials to me.  Yes, I looked on Amazon to see if HEPA filters were cheaper there. Now the edges of Facebook alight with advertisements for HEPA filters.

How do I feel about this?  Pretty creeped out. If a human being trackedGoogle my behavior this closely, I would report him to the police.  I’m being stalked.  And yet, I keep using these resources.  Why?  In part, because everyone else is.  It’s how I keep in touch with my friends around the country.  In fact more and more, it’s how all of us keep in touch.  Some articles suggest that sites like Facebook are killing events like the high school reunion. Who needs to go back to a smelly school when a web page can tell you what your high school nemesis is doing?

And with all that, maybe I don’t want everyone to know what I’m doing?  Maybe I want to hang onto an outmoded Aristotelian public/private divide that is no longer feasible in this hyper-connected society we live in. Marshal McLuhan described our increasing interconnectedness as a global village. In Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) he writes, “And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence” (32).  Like a village, everyone knows your business and you depend on them for your existence.

Is this the world we want to live in? Will we all write in Newspeak someday?

Check out Carnegie Mellon University’s privacy grade website to find out how your apps measure up.

Facebook and Social Action

This week, we talked about what genres do.  We had some great conversations about the function of Twitter and other social media. What makes an exemplary tweet?  What makes an exemplary Facebook status? I think we realized that a lot of the ways we measure successful rhetoric may not work for something like Facebook because the social action is different.  The social action of social networking is to get noticed, liked, and shared.  This may mean that deliberate, well-written, and considerate writing does not receive notice, where as over the top, hyperbolic, or weird writing is most successful.

In fact, the worst behavior is often rewarded in social media. In “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook,” Tim Urban states that annoying statuses are self-serving: “A Facebook status is annoying if it primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it.”  I think there’s some truth to this, although I wonder what Facebook status isn’t a little self-serving. Regardless, here are his seven ways to be insufferable:

  1. The Brag, which includes greats like the “I’m Living Quite the Life” Brag, the Undercover Brag, and the “I’m in a Great Relationship” Brag
  2. The Cryptic Cliffhanger
  3. The Literal Status Update
  4. The Inexplicably-Public Private Message
  5. The Out-Of-Nowhere Oscar Acceptance Speech
  6. The Step Toward Enlightenment
  7. The Incredibly Obvious Opinion

These types of statuses are very common and very popular. That is to say, if you post, “Ughhhhhhhh,” you want someone to comment, “Oh baby, what’s wrong?”  And what’s worse, inevitably someone will.

And at the same time, this seems to be a rhetorically sound practice using a pathetic appeal. Your audience feels for you and responds accordingly. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge these masters of digital rhetoric.