I've been away from Twitter and, somewhat less so, FB, for a number of days. That was partly a choice and partly because I've just been working hard and haven't had time to spend on much else. Today I took a look, and saw that the scrolls -- no surprise -- are dominated by people's comments on the death of Robin Williams, and a whole pile of posts and advice about depression, mental illness, and suicide.
I don't want to take anything away from the sincerity of people's sadness and shock, or the value of focussing on mental health issues. It's just clear that this is the latest "heartfelt-concern-of-the-moment." And I wonder if it's actually symbolic of what makes many people in our culture feel insignificant and depressed.
We've all become accustomed to the online empathy curve, in which there's an outpouring of emotion when a disaster or death occurs, everyone jumping on the tear-and-tribute-filled bandwagon for a few days, until the next event occurs, or everyone has had their say and, like sated guests at a Roman banquet, simply fall asleep, unable to consume or spew any more. In some ways, it seems like the social networks are made for this sort of group catharsis.
Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" pokes exaggerated fun at the cult of celebrity when an insignificant clerk (played perfectly by the wonderful Roberto Benigni) is suddenly pursued by a huge crowd of reporters who want to know every detail of his mundane life, from how he butters his toast to how he spilled the coffee that morning on his tie. He becomes an instant celebrity. Beautiful women suddenly want to sleep with him; he gets the best seats in all the restaurants; a chauffeur, a new office; strangers come up to him in the street wanting his autograph. This goes on for several days, alternately delighting him and driving him nuts, until, just as suddenly, he's deserted and discarded when the flock of reporters sees someone else on the street who looks "even more fascinating."
Most of us, of course, are not celebrities at all. I realize that I'm able to look in on the social networks, and choose to turn away or not, because I'm fairly healthy, busy, and have a lot of support and love and affirmation in my life. But there are a lot of people out there who don't have that. By the same token, when I pay attention to my emotional state, I realize that it isn't particularly good for me to spend too much time there; I see how manipulative a medium it is, and how it plays with some of my basic human fears, and desires for attention and "success." I can't see how a medium (perfectly reflecting the culture behind it) that avidly picks up and then discards real human suffering in a matter of days, and quantifies our participation with "likes" and "favorites" can be healthy or helpful for people with low self-esteem, and/or mental and emotional fragility. Nothing I say is going to change anything about that, but I feel the need to note it on this day when we're steeped in talk of depression. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I find too much participation in the social networks quite depressing, in and of itself.
Many people have found a virtual support group or online community around particular issues, and that's one of the web's great virtues: I value my online friendships hugely too, and I do feel supported by them: especially by those people whom I've actually met in person. Those relationships and conversations, whether via email or online groups or on blogs, feel deeper and far less transient than on the social networks, of which I guess I've been a pretty consistent critic, as well as a user.
But when night falls, or the days go by one after another, and we actually realize we're alone, how do we cope in our real worlds, in our everyday lives? Are we building friendships next door, is there someone who can come over or meet us in the park, put an arm around our shoulder or lend an ear when we're hurting? Are we there for them, too? Are we involved in our communities, in organizations that bring us into contact with other people? Do we know our neighbors? Because we are embodied creatures living in real places with other embodied creatures; we have eyes that see far more and communicate greater depths of meaning than any word written on a computer screen can convey; we are complex beings whose silence, as we sit next to an empathetic friend, is full and rich, while our computers and phones simply turn on and off.