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How to talk about tragedy online

by Alex in | | |

Time out, people.

In the past 24 hours we have been have been inspired, informed, comforted and mobilized by the unfolding conversation on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. But it’s clear that we have also had moments of feeling attached, horrified, angered and shamed.

So let’s take a moment to stop and think about how we want to use these still-new social networking tools in a moment of collective grief and trauma. Sadly, we are all too practiced in the experience of witnessing horrific, preventable tragedy. But we are newcomers to the experience of processing our grief and horror online, so we are in very real danger of exacerbating the trauma and sorrow many of us are feeling, and intensifying the conflicts and enmities that keep us from effecting the policy and cultural changes that could reduce the risk of future tragedy.

Here’s what I would encourage anyone currently using social media to consider at this moment:

Personal capacity

Know yourself. If you’re someone who is profoundly affected by disturbing news, you will want to think about the trade-off between being informed and motivated and the personal cost of learning disturbing details. You should also think about degree of sensitivity to conflicts or personal attacks: there are a lot of passionate reactions unfolding out there, so before you share your own comments or read others, think about whether and how well you are prepared to be attacked or read harsh comments about your friends’ posts. And if you are the kind of person who uses screen time to numb out, think about whether you’d be better off unplugging for a little bit so that you can actually experience and process your emotions.

Purpose

Think about why you are turning to social media before you reach for the phone or open your laptop. Let your personal needs and motives guide your choice of platforms and your form of engagement. To name a few possibilities:

Support:  If you’re like me, you may need to feel more connected than usual — to talk and emote and think this through together, so that you don’t feel alone in your grief. When you’re looking for support, stick with one-to-one communications like e-mail, private messaging or DMs,or keep your engagement to a very small circle of trusted friends.

Information: Many of us instinctively turn to the web as a source of additional details on a news story, or for context and analysis that can help us make sense of it. Don’t confuse information with answers, however: knowing more is unlikely to help you comprehend the incomprehensible. Again, small-scale conversation (on or offline) with people who have thoughtful perspectives you respect is likely to be the best way for you to process and think through your response.

Policy change: The conversation has very quickly turned to the question of whether there are policy changes that could mitigate the risk of future shootings. If your goal in engaging online is to effect policy change — by donating to a cause, contacting your political representatives or participating in some other form of online activism — then you may want to look into what kinds of online participation are most likely to be effective. (Amy Sample Ward’s excellent case study on #TakeBackThePink is a great place to start.) If you’re also hoping to influence your fellow citizens, then it’s worth thinking about what kinds of posts may actually enable constructive conversation with people who think differently from you, and what kinds will entrench existing political fault lines.

Venting: In a moment of grief and fear, many of us simply feel a need to howl out in pain or rage. That’s ok. Just don’t confuse it with a way of getting support or constructive conversation, and consider doing your venting in the equivalent of a soundproof chamber — say, an anonymous corner of the Internet where your venting won’t hurt anyone, and is unlikely to come back to bite you.

Audience

In a moment of extreme pain and sensitivity, it may be useful to narrow the scope of your online engagement so that your social networks feel like safer spaces for you and the people you care about. If you haven’t done so before, consider setting up a Google+ circle or Facebook list of very close friends — the people you’d actually want to sit down and talk this through with — and limit your online conversation to that list. (You can adapt these instructions for using Facebook lists.)

Remember that unless you limit your reading and sharing to a small and specific circle, you may hear from people who have very different responses, experiences and views of this situation. As you think about what to share, imagine that what you are sharing could be read or addressed by…

  • parents, family or friends of yesterday’s victims
  • parents or teachers who may be feeling sincerely terrified by what yesterday’s events imply for their own or their family’s safety
  • children, include those who are under the age of consent on Facebook
  • journalists or bloggers who may quote you (even anonymously) in stories
  • lobbyists, activists and policymakers who may be influenced by your comments or reaction
  • strangers who have significantly different political views from your own

Many of these folks are likely to be experiencing some level of trauma, so tread carefully. Be as gentle as if you were speaking to a parent who had just lost a child, and as ferocious as if you had 10 minutes of your congressional representative’s undivided attention. Stick to that standard even if you feel like you’re under attack yourself: it’s quite possible that the person who seems to be flaming you is a hurting unit who has lost sight of their usual good judgement.

And if you have kids in the house, please be careful about what you leave on your screen, even if you are just getting up for a moment.

Language

One of the classic problems of online communication is that the words we write with one tone in mind may be read and perceived as if the tone were entirely different. That’s why we need to be especially careful in our choice of words during a moment of sensitivity and trauma. Some guidelines to keep in mind, based what I have observed so far, as well as on basic principles of nonviolent communication:

Constructive and comforting conversation flows from language like:

  • “I” language:  ”I’m scared…” or ”I feel…”
  • Genuine questions: “Does anyone know…?” or “I wonder whether…?” or “Who else is feeling…?”
  • Listening language: “It sounds like…” or words like “interested”, “curious”, “wondering”
  • Appreciation: “Thank you for sharing…” or  ”It meant a lot to me to read that….” or “You helped me think about…”

And here are the 6 words or phrases I’d implore folks to be extremely careful in using right now, because the conversations where they are cropping up are the ones that are getting scary, fast:

  • Disgusted
  • Puke
  • Fuck
  • Narcissistic
  • Stupid
  • Idiotic

It comes down to this: be gentle out there, friends. I’m hurting. Many of you are hurting. Let’s not make it worse.

First posted on December 15,2012

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