‘I Watched a Man Die Tonight’: Thoughts on Personifying Social Media Post-Trauma

Social media is arguably the biggest contradiction of this Digital Age.

A rather amorphous and ambiguous entity, social media can be broken down to a number of different platforms and apps most of which were designed for a specific uses or mode of sharing, all of which are intended to link a person or organization to another.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear, and subsequently supported by scientific evidence, that social media often yields the opposite result. Users yearning for acceptance via social networks too frequently and unknowingly ostracize themselves from the tangible world. Brands, companies and organizations attempting to engage with others similarly toe the line of over-sharing and alienating their audiences. Some looking to share their “true selves” invariably pick and choose how they want others to perceive them.

I, for one, have a deep-seated aversion to social media but I actively upkeep most of my accounts knowing full well that having an online presence in an increasingly tech-based world is mandate in the realm of writing and “content creation.”

And isn’t that the essence of successful social media? Knowing when to promote, provoke and prattle without falling short and without overstepping? It’s about trying to strike a balanced and harmonious chord in order to build relationships without razing any.

The tech landscape continues to rapidly evolve and so too does social media. Social networks and platforms are no longer just online markets for spreading news, sharing personal thoughts, uploading images and videos, tweeting, retweeting, trolling, snapping, swiping, gramming, liking, or un-friending.

Social media itself is a scrambled dimension that’s becoming increasingly clear.

Social media itself is becoming personified.

No longer solely a vehicle for sending and receiving messages and sentiments, social media in and of itself is an organism comprised of servers, lines of code and profiles that can act as a confidant, in lieu of one that lives, breathes and thinks consciously.

People are starting to share with social media — not on it, by it, or through it.

I watched a man die tonight

One of my two jobs requires a daily 5 a.m. wake up.

During this time before the sun breaches the horizon I freshen up, plan my day and all the while learn of any current events the most direct and digestible way possible: social media feeds.

On the morning of April 2 I unsuspectingly opened my Twitter app and instead of scrolling through headlines and early-morning opinions, my eyes met a series of rather disturbing tweets dispatched from a friend named Jeff.

Knowing that I don’t usually see Jeff posting at this hour, and that when he does post anything at any hour it’s usually in a professional or casually light-hearted manner, I was especially taken aback when I realized the extent of his five-tweet catharsis:

 

 

 

 

 

Naturally, the event of the tweets was alarming.

Jeff told me that after an evening of enjoying Boston’s nightlife, he was walking down Tremont Street past the parking garage situated across the road from Royale, just a stone’s thrown southward from Tufts Medical Center and the Wang Theatre.

A controlled-environment shooting enthusiast, Jeff has spent ample time around firearms and firing ranges. The noise registered first in his mind as a gunshot but he quickly realized that wasn’t quite right. There was something about this noise that was different. There was no usual echo that follows the discharge of a firearm, a kind of ringing bang suspended in the air for a matter of seconds before dissipating into space-time, which seems odd given the locale’s surrounding structures composed of noise-returning brick and concrete.

He heard more of a hollow clap, a boisterous and blunt thud that, once determined not to be a gunshot, sounded completely unnatural.

Looking around, he then noticed a red-hued cloud, a patch of seemingly tinted fog.

It was hovering over the body of a man who had fallen several stories from the parking garage to his untimely death.

The scene must’ve been terrifying for Jeff and I can only speculate as to how I would act in that same scenario. I imagine the scene in The Departed when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is walking towards an abandoned warehouse only to be interrupted by the sudden crash of Martin Sheen’s character’s lifeless corpse crashing to the pavement in front of him.

I know Jeff to be a level-headed man, even with a buzz on. His altruistic instincts kicked into high gear, and he rushed over to perform CPR, though to no avail.

After a debriefing with medics and police, Jeff sat down on the curb and pondered the surreal circumstances that unfolded so quickly, yet also perceivably in slow motion.

Like most people who endure trauma, Jeff needed an outlet for his emotions, even if only to tell someone, or something, that he just experienced one Hell of a night.

Twitter’s the only person

Jeff’s tweets, and later the full story he told me, were concerning to the point that I felt a latent anxiety when I read them, and again when he and I spoke in person.

What piqued my interest even more, though, was the language he used to personify Twitter.

“I… I genuinely don’t know what to say,” he wrote. “Nobody’s awake right now… So Twitter’s the only person that I can talk to.”

Without diminishing the gravity of the situation as a whole, I was admittedly struck most by these words. Simultaneously Jeff was speaking into Twitter and at Twitter, using it both as a sort of digital podium from which to speak but also as a person, “the only person,” that he could converse with, even if that conversation was one-sided by default.

He told me that because of the late-night/early-morning timeframe of the incident, intimate friends from the east coast to the west were surely asleep.

In fact, he told me later in an email that it was his hope that nobody would see the tweet.

“It seemed less dramatic than shouting into the night what happened at the top of my lungs, and there wasn’t anyone to wake-up…. so ‘the internet’ seemed to be the best choice,” he said.

To whom does one turn when there’s nobody else around?

The paradox spirals on.

Humanizing social media

In the arsenal of contemporary marketers and advertisers, social media is the weapon of choice. Here they can add a humanesque quality to the brands they represent and by doing so have the ability to reach an audience at any time of day.

Social media is a web of brands and personas, with a few legitimate people and unsavory trolls sprinkled in.

Social media can likewise take on humanistic qualities which may then generate a sense of trust between a user and social media, making it a more likely option for someone when looking for an outlet for one’s feelings.

According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Brands that have been anthropomorphized in a positive way have been empirically found to enjoy more favorable consumer attitudes and command higher loyalty than those that do not.”

In Jeff’s case, having used social media networks more or less since their respective inceptions, social media provided that accepting attitude to the point that he was willing to bear a raw and painful experience even if it was against his instincts.

As Isaac Newton illuminated in his laws of physics, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. For social media the reaction could be a negative response toward someone, complete exclusion from any discussions, or the broad perception of “being cold, impersonal or even ruthless…stodgy, boring and colorless,” added the Review.

Over-Sharing

Much the way social media itself is a contradiction of today, what and how we share can also be contradictory.

I’m not one to pay attention to substantially personal stories, considering them largely over-shares (that is, shares that people have little, if any, vested interest in). All too often I’m disassociating myself from people because of the simple fact that the only subject they post is their child, or their meal, or an image of him/herself; however, I freely share this blog and I don’t doubt that some of my own friends and connections place it in the over-share bucket.

The moment I told my girlfriend of Jeff’s tweets, the horrendous accident he witnessed and his thought-provoking descriptions to describe his justification for tweeting about it, she dished a familiar eye roll my way.

He’s just doing it for the shock-factor, she told me, to gain more followers, to stay relevant and to post something grabbing for his followers to indulge sympathy.

Having spent the lion’s share of the last few years of my professional life in front of a computer screen, Tweetdeck columns scrolling through the latest bursts of 140-character messages like the Matrix’s lines of green code, I can attest that there are definitely people who use social media for the likes, re-shares and accompanying self satisfaction.

I know that Jeff does share often — perhaps too much for some peoples’ taste– but I also know that much of his content related to his own career and the tech-driven engine of Boston’s millennial machine. He alerts his followers to networking events, insightful articles, beer and wine expos, etc. On occasion he’ll mix in photos of his truly adorable dog or his own social commentary.

I could see how my girlfriend came to her conclusion. He posts with frequency and much of it is comical. He tweets directly at people or tags them on Facebook. The photos, videos, and gifs he includes to accompany his text can either put you on the floor laughing or make you skeptically raise an eyebrow.

According to two research studies conducted by Harvard Business School, over-sharing on behalf of a commercial venture is generally beneficial.

After all, “People don’t notice the dog that doesn’t bark,” says HBS Assistant Professor of Business Administration Leslie John.

To those who don’t know Jeff, he may appear on the surface to be a social media fanatic. But he insists he does not share with the intention of simply adding digits to his follower tally.

“Looking back ,the phrasing used and the overall message does sound somewhat dramatized and ‘enhanced,’” he added in his email. “That being said, I think in retrospect a lot of the tonality – the deadpan ‘I watched a man die tonight’ was more due to just that: not wanting to appear to be sharing for likes/retweets/attention. No panache or anything, just ‘this is what happened, here’s how it went.’”

So when, if ever, is it socially acceptable to over-share? Jeff’s scenario should be held in different regard because he wasn’t trying to promote himself, or his business, or his conduct in any way at all.

What he was hoping to do, rather, was experience a certain purging of emotions in order to live steadfastly after experiencing a dreadful experience. It wasn’t attention he was after, firing off one tweet after the next at a time when people are usually snoring and dreaming of kitten compilation videos. It was a place — the only true place — he could vent.

“The immediate feelings of relief derived from such letting go can hardly be overstated,” wrote Psychology Today, referring to the feeling of relief and cleansing that comes from letting a distressing event off one’s chest.

But, it adds, “at some point in your life you’ve benefited from the comfort and consolation of another person’s supporting and validating you when you shared some distressing experience with them.”

Few, maybe a mere handful of people, responded to Jeff and each were in support of his well-being.

Jeff told me that for him, purging himself of this kind of burden provides him with a singular and everlasting relief. In previous instances throughout his life, where tragedy has occurred and required a subsequent phone call or text in order to reach someone with whom he bestows confidence, it takes only that singular conversation before he can again sleep soundly.

Ultimately, “there are various situations that are simply too dangerous to go up against,” adds Psychology Today. “In such scenarios, it’s a great relief to at least have someone in your corner who you know is safe to vent these strong feelings to.”

Reflection

I can’t speak to whether sharing certain life experiences over social media is a positive action for one or several people. It does, though, call into question whether any social media platform is, or will ever be, the preferential place for one to relieve his or her internal agony.

Comparatively, humans have the upper-hand over computers and robotics when it comes to empathy. Software may be able to compute large sums, interconnect people across digital networks, and in doing both make the world a vastly smaller place, but it still lacks both a sense of understanding and overall rational thought necessary for comfort.

It’s my own personal contention that nothing can ever match a living, breathing person when it comes to matters of the heart or of the mind. Where, then, do we turn in times of distress when there’s no brain, bone, and flesh to release our pain?

The answer may be now, and forever, social media, where people certainly turn their attention to and offer their thoughts and opinions willingly.

If this is good or bad, I cannot say. If it’s good then we’re collectively acquiescing that technology is a viable substitute for human emotion — numbers and codes and networks and servers and media are able to provide the kind of reprieve for certain conscious experiences that we, ourselves have.

Through that lens, social media can’t act as a punching bag. It does not reciprocate nor does it absorb feeling. Rather it computes, it calculates, and it compounds.

If there’s not a single soul in which to confide, however, social media is something of a godsend. It can act as a dungeon in which we can arrest most of our sadness and distress in real-time.

Whether we want this safe deposit box to be powered by the human brain or an operating system, I can’t be sure. But what I can be sure of is that whichever choice humanity ultimately decides to make as its favored confidant should be made with tremendous care. Too many and too realistic are our mainstream considerations of such a choice exaggerated in feature films, fictional writings and worldwide traditions for us not to approach with caution and a degree of skepticism.

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