The split-second half-life of online grief
After a tragedy like Paris, we need time for reflection — a luxury Twitter can ill afford
Everything’s accelerated these days, and the same must be said for grief online. The Internet cycles through all five stages in as many tweets. We find it hurtling toward us: unavoidable, wall-to-wall.
And then, before we’ve processed it, the grief’s already gone.
In the five days since extremists slaughtered 129 people in Paris, millions of witnesses — present only through their computer screens — posted prayers and pictures and promised solidarity. For four hours, then five, then six, they trended Twitter hashtags like #PorteOuverte and #PrayforParis. They laid French flags over their Facebook photos and shared images by artists such as Jean Jullien (who created the Eiffel Tower peace sign symbol). And just as quickly, their posts reverted back to quips about sports teams, viral videos, pictures with friends — now posted by little avatars striped in the French blue, white and red.
These posts feel inappropriate — indecorous, somehow. As if their posters were telling jokes at a very sombre funeral. The world must move on, of course; no one’s saying it shouldn’t. And social media makes an imprecise weather vane for our collective conscience.
Still, it makes one wonder: is there a half-life to grief? And has the Internet shortened it, as it has all other things?
On Twitter, the hashtag #Prayfor- Paris trended globally for only five hours and 35 minutes last Saturday; #ParisAttacks did a little better, at six hours and change. (The Twitter algorithm is biased toward novelty.)
By Sunday, not a single solidarity hashtag made the top 100 trending topics, as measured by the analytics site Trendinalia. By Monday, even news organizations had cut their Paris tweets by half or more. I tallied every tweet sent by every major online-only publisher from Nov. 14 to Nov. 16, figuring these guys are the ones who best “get” the Internet; of them, only Business Insider has maintained the same ratio of Paris tweets — and it didn’t have much to begin with.
This is not, to be clear, meant as criticism: it’s merely an observation of fact. News breaks and we’re devoured by it; interest decays loga- rithmically, online and offline.
Part of that has to do with the natural ebbs and flows of information; part of it is human nature. (As Tom Hawking wrote in an essay for Flavorwire on Tuesday, “we have emotional defence mechanisms for a reason.”) The Internet has undeniably sped everything up: it takes far less time to become famous, to spread a rumour, to talk to someone halfway around the world.
But after a tragedy like the one in Paris, we need time for sustained, contemplative thought. And there is no time for anything, ever — the Internet moves on.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that social media is always inconsistent with introspection or contemplation; certainly it seems unfair to pan all displays of online grief as variants of meme. (Like memes, online outpourings may not last long; but ask Beirut: their existence means something.)
The split-second half-life of social grief is problematic, however, because the research suggests that we need time to reflect — and we need to reflect to feel empathy. Short-circuiting that process exhausts our ability to feel for other people or help them or act to change anything. There’s a real risk, in other words, to processing grief with the speed and insincerity you would a viral meme.
Last week, on Nov. 9 — four days before the Paris attacks — the European Journalism Observatory published a report on the long-term impact that viral photos of a drowned Syrian toddler had on the immigration conversation there. You’ll remember the photos, which were, for a moment, absolutely everywhere.
For a week after the photos went viral, the report found, newspapers were far more sympathetic to refugees. But two weeks later? Three?
It was as if Alan Kurdi never trended; the tone of the news coverage reverted back to what it had been previously.