“Did you hear?”
I quickly spun to my computer screen. The tone of “Boston” rang of tragedy and sent me to my social media. Oddly, I didn’t ask the person I was speaking with for the details. Instead, I looked to my “feeds” for what I so suddenly needed.
In times of tragedy like these social media can be in top form. Rising above a default posture of self-promotion and the critique it so readily draws. Doing what our new constant companion does best: instantaneous connection.
If social media is in many ways a monument to a lonely culture’s collective cry to see and be seen, know and be known, to be heard, to be “liked,” then perhaps during times like this it can also help us remember a few important things about the shared humanity behind the medium.
We don’t just long for connectivity, we are connected.
As I scanned through my feeds a beautiful refrain began to repeat itself like a social media chorus: “We are here.” “We see you.” “We are with you.”
Instead of the potential mass mediated Genovese syndrome, residents immediately began offering up their homes, made possible by social media. A person finder was set-up, made known by social media. Post after post of solidarity was sent out to the greater good. This wasn’t passive “slacktivism” or mere opportunistic paws for attention, but a genuine outpouring of compassion and shared experience. A city moved and a country was moved – all in an instant.
Social media can reveal practically how we not only want to be a part of something bigger, but that somehow we already are.
We all need a space to be heard, felt, and understood.
Sure, social media can exploit our insecurity and vanity, but at the same time it showcases our need to be able to reach out and feel connected—right now. With tragedy comes a swell of reactions most of us have a hard time sorting out. In such an isolated age, we have few safe places to express them at all.
For better or worse, we increasingly turn to technological space as our place of choice to process a world out of our control. Shock, grief, anger, confusion, doubt as well as sympathy are now more readily shared online than in person. In absence of dialog or proximity we find relief in mediated validation and online participation. A collective “me too” has always been equal parts salve and catalyst—and now social media is where we experience this phenomenon most.
Our digital socialization can and does reveal that what we “share” in common is ultimately far more binding than what divides us.
We know the good will overpower the bad.
This quote was perhaps the one most reposted alongside countless images of people helping:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” ~Mister Rogers
We can choose to dwell on the evil in the world or on the Light that breaks through the cracks in the brokenness. Confronted by evil the social sphere chose a face of optimism. Of all that could have been expressed what we saw was, for the most part, a real-time record of undeniable hope.
We are all bonded by an inescapable suspicion that something is not right with the world. Things simply aren’t supposed to be this way. This innate sense of injustice connects us and compels us to an equally inescapable suspicion: something can be done.
Our social media echo reveals that deep down we know there is a “Goodness” that has already won…and we long to be a part of it.
We forget far too easily.
On Tuesday, Boston was nearly gone from my feeds. I had to dig a little deeper and turn to more traditional media for recent updates. The confusion remained as the socially mediated shows of solidarity waned. By the end of the week, social media had gone from a haven of comfort and solidarity to a vehicle of misinformation, paranoia and self-indulgence.
Sadly, it seems only extreme events awaken us to what matters most and now those too are quickly scrolled away. Our reminders become as fleeting as our medium of choice. Unceasing feeds and the built in filters of our limited circles ultimately hide a world of importance. How quickly our social sphere becomes a bubble.
There were glimmers of connection to those hurting from similar evils around the globe, but they flickered at best. True solidarity is only so when we remember and connect beyond our social circles with those in Syria, Iraq, and around the world who are experiencing bombings regularly and the loss of life suffered daily in our cities.
Our collectivity is only limited to our own lists and momentary mediums if we allow it. So, what can tragedy teach us about social media?
As Christians continue to ponder and publish on the question of how to “use” social media the answer is that we already know how. We always have. Times of tragedy provide a case study in how social media can and should be used every day. The world is on fire and listening for a collective chorus of voices…You are loved. You are not alone. You are seen. You are heard. Share my home. I share your pain.
Anything else, and words not followed by action, is just self-promotion.
Brian Kammerzelt is an assistant professor and chair of the communications department at the Moody Bible Institute. For more information, visit www.critiquebycreating.com or follow him on Twitter @ProfKammerzelt.