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.