2015: A Year to Share and to Connect

A few days ago, my friend and colleague Alec Couros asked, via Twitter, about people’s personal and professional goals for 2015. My personal goals are still a bit muddled (2014 was a challenging year in many ways, both for me and, to be honest, for the world in general), but professionally, I have a pretty good idea of where I’m headed:

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So I’m ending this year by getting started on those first two goals with a blog post (second in a week – must be a record or something) that will hopefully hold me accountable in some strange, don’t-let-the-Internet-down kind of way.

I’ve got two plans so far – the first is to take part in the Photo-a-day Challenge, which I’ll be doing on my newly minted Flickr account (yeah, I know, it’s empty so far), and the second is to get much involved in Twitter chats and other Twitter conversations – I share resources a lot, but I could be so much better at engaging with others. I just need to work a bit harder on believing that others care what I have to say.

Thinking about all of this sharing, I’m reminded a pretty cool quote by Eric Raymond about gift economies:

In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.”

This idea seems to align really well with what happens on Twitter – the people I respect the most in that space are the ones who comment, who reshare, and who engage with others: who give away knowledge, insight, sometimes even just a bit of humour or support.

So…in 2015, what will you give away?

Social Networks and the Globalization of Happiness and Grief

This past summer, I wrote about my mother’s battle with a terminal brain illness, which has left her blind and with dementia. After publishing the post, I sent the link to a few family members, but I also shared it on Twitter. Then I headed out for a run to clear my head.

The first person to respond to my tweet was a former student, who thanked me for sharing my story. I remember so clearly seeing the notification, mid-run. My immediate reaction was one of confusion – some part of me had not considered that by sharing my post on Twitter, definitely the most public and professional of social networks for me, everyone would see it; my social contexts, so carefully separated in real life, were collapsed online. I felt vulnerable, but I also felt a sense of comfort and relief.

When I asked my family if it was okay to share what I’d written about my mother, my sister asked me why I wanted to post it online. I wasn’t sure then, and I’m sure not entirely sure now. Sharing online is an odd business, really, one that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. So much has been written about the ways in which social media has changed the way we relate to one another, from the digital dualists who argue that we need to privilege our face to face connections by unplugging, to those, like Nathan Jurgenson, who argue that Facebook is real life – that social media has merely shifted and augmented our relationships. Certainly, social networks have made it possible for us to share wonderful moments with a wide audience (like the recent video of a son who paid off his parents’ mortgage). But they have also shifted the nature of mourning, from private and localized suffering to a new, globalized grief.

Of course, this is not always a positive: our public/publicized mourning has led to hoaxes where people take advantage of human generosity and kindness, and it also backfired recently for Facebook, where the automatically generated “Year in Review” feature brought back painful memories for some users. It has led to the strange phenomenon of grief porn. And it has made it difficult at times for us to move on from traumatic events, as we are constantly reminded of them.

But the sharing of pain and trauma is also (for me, at least), on some level deeply comforting. Research suggests that social networking sites are so satisfying (and at times addictive) because of the endorphins that are released when we post or receive feedback from others in the form of likes, favourites, or comments, so perhaps this plays in role in why we share. And certainly there is something wonderful about receiving words of encouragement and sympathy from complete strangers, who reach out online out of simple human empathy. It is, in a sense, a reassurance of the deep-down, fundamental kindness of people: a reminder that grief is in many ways the great equalizer, a feeling to which we can all relate.

As I write, I watch my terminally-ill mother sleeping on the couch beside me. I am struck by the rapid decline in her functioning even since this summer, when I first shared her story. The moments of clarity come rarely now for her, and this Christmas has been tough for my family. And once again, I am drawn to share this, not only to write about how I am feeling, but to put it out into the world – to feel connected and, perhaps, simply to feel human in the midst of difficulty and pain.

 

Tragedy, Politics, and Grief in an Age of Immediacy and Networks

I’ve been working on a blog post for awhile now about digital identity, in an effort to get my ePortfolio and blog up and running before the craziness of a new semester sets in. I thought that soon, maybe today, I’d finally click publish on that post.

But then, just as I was gathering the courage to post, this Sunday my social media feeds exploded with sadness and injustice and hate, and I felt that I needed to write something different. I watched as news broke about the killing of an unarmed black teen in Missouri by police. Through the tweets of a few people in my Twitter feed, I followed the emerging stories of racism and violence and grief.

Yesterday, those stories continued. Last night, I saw tweets and news stories about the protests in Ferguson and about the rubber bullets and tear gas being used on protesters. And amidst all this, I learned of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide, which sparked an outpouring of grief, of sympathy, and of support for other sufferers of depression across both my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I’ve seen it before, but perhaps the confluence of these very different tragedies made it more apparent. Networks, the Internet, our digital existence — all of this has changed the way we grieve and experience sadness and loss. Tragedies no longer break in the mainstream media — they break on Twitter, through the voices of the many, not the few.

In a networked world, tragedy and grief are quick to appear and then remain ever-present. There are constant reminders of those we’ve lost and of horrific events; it is hard to escape tragedy when it is everywhere in our new feeds. Of course, networks can bring support, comfort, and a feeling of solidarity, especially when we are far, physically, from those we love. But the immediacy and ubiquity of the news of tragedies also seems to bring quick politicization. In some ways, this is a positive — the coverage on social media will (hopefully) bring necessary attention to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The outpouring of sadness in the wake of Robin Williams’ death may generate much-needed awareness about mental illness.

But the immediate politicization of tragey is also problematic. In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, I saw an argument arise on Twitter between two activists, Suey Park and Tim Wise, about the idea of privilege and the appropriate ways of being an ally in discussions of race. After Robin Williams’ death, debates over suicide and mental illness sprang up on social media. This is not new: after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, there were immediate calls for gun-control, for arming teachers, for tighter screening of gun owners.

These conversations are important, no doubt. We need to talk about the entrenched racism that surrounds the events in Ferguson. We need to discuss mental illness, and guns, and privilege, and all of the other hard issues that tragedies bring to the surface.

But perhaps, first, we need a little time to mourn, alone or together, individually or through our networks. Perhaps, as outsiders looking in on tragic situations, we can just let grief be grief, for a little while at least.