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9 Jan

Why We Tweet When We Tweet When Tweeting Seems An Odd Thing To Do

Last week, someone in our community lost her home in a fire. She tweeted about it, and the community rallied (not least because of this dear woman), and although there’s no real happy ending when someone loses so much, it seemed, at least, that one could keep faith with humanity as caring and good. But then – almost immediately – and inevitably – the criticisms came. Why was she was tweeting? Why should someone so irresponsible be supported by the community? Why should the community support anyone they don’t know? What is this ‘community’ thing that everyone is talking about, anyway, because, seriously, how could anyone think that the Internet has communities? There is, after all, no there there.

I’m not going to speak to the question of community support – I have about eleventeen thousand words to say about that, that I’ll save for another time – but I can speak – have spoken to – the question of why we tweet in those moments that seem to defy tweeting – why, indeed, tweeting during those moments tells us something about the very nature of tweeting, and of social sharing generally. Those words, repurposed, are below.

When I received the call telling me that my father had died, I cried. I cried loud, I cried hard, I fell to the ground and clutched at my aching chest and I wailed. And then, curled up on the floor, phone in hand, I tweeted.

I tweeted because it was instinct. I tweeted because it was the only thing that I could think of to do. I tweeted because I needed to get the words that were reverberating in my head and smashing against the walls of my mind out out out and into the world so that I could step back and see them/hear them/feel them and know that they weren’t just the narrative of some nightmare conjured up by that corner of my soul that holds and nurtures its darkest fears. I needed to face the words, and know that they were true. I needed to take control of the narration of the terrible story that was unfolding. I needed to speak. I needed to write.

So I tweeted.

My father is dead. My father has died. My father is gone.

There is much that can be said – dissected, debated, argued, asserted – about the impulse to tweet a tragedy. Some have said that tweeting during a tragedy is akin to fiddling while Rome burns, that it is evidence of a narcissistic soul. Others have said that it’s simply the virtual equivalent of calling out to friends  – by phone or by letter or over the garden fence – for help and support. I think that it’s a little bit of both.

The impulse to narrate any event, or one’s feelings in response to some event, is to some degree a narcissistic one, if we understand narcissism loosely (and perhaps literally) as focused self-regard, as a concentration of one’s attention upon oneself. It is to position oneself as author of the story that is unfolding, it is to take the first-person narrative role, it is to make the story about oneself. It is – contra Barthes – to become the source of meaning of the text. This needn’t be a bad thing. I asserted myself as narrator of the story of my father’s death because I needed to narrate that story, because I needed to assert my place within that story – grief-stricken daughter, confused grief-stricken daughter – in order to tell it to myself, and to the world. And telling the story was crucial to me surviving the first overwhelming waves of pain and sadness: I grabbed on to the story like a buoy and hung onto it for dear life. It was wet and slick and cold and I kept losing my grip, but it was there, and I kept myself afloat by reaching for it, grabbing for it, clinging to it when I could. There I was adrift, there I was battling the waves, there I was out and alone in a dark, turbulent sea with only the buoyant mass of my words to hold onto, to mark my place in that sea, to alert others – anybody, anybody – that there I was. I harbored no illusions that anyone could pluck me from the dark and save me. But I needed the world to know that I was there. I needed to know that I was there.

So: it was narcissistic of me, in some wise, to tweet my father’s death. Tweeting my father’s death made that death all about me. But, for me, it was all about me. It was my story, the story of my grief, and my tweets were the first painful lines in that story. I needed to say them out loud so that I could keep going. I also needed my community, my friends, and tweeting was my way of crying out to that community that I was hurt, that I was hurting, that I was in pain. But that, too, was part of the storytelling impulse: I needed someone to tell my story to. I needed my cries in the dark to be heard. I needed to know, I needed to prove, that the story was real, that this wasn’t just me talking in my sleep, singing myself a nightmare, narrating some terror from which I could not rouse. Is a story really a story if there is no reader, no audience? Even if I’d written the words down in a journal to read to myself, or whispered them into someone’s ear, the purpose would have been the same: to put the story out there, to get it heard. By one person, by thousands – the intent is the same. To get it heard. To make it real. To tell the story. To tell the story so that the pain and ache and gut-tearing grief become something other. So that they take on a life of their own, outside of one’s ravaged heart, as story.

The love, the hugs, the prayers, the good wishes, all of the things that come from the community when we cry out to it: these are precious, these are invaluable, these are necessary. But they are not what we are looking for – or, not the only things that we are looking for, not the only things that I was looking for – when we proclaim our tragedies, our hurts. We proclaim because we are storytellers, because storytelling has a saving power, because telling stories – telling our stories, telling our most difficult stories – saves us, or, at least, keeps us afloat. Twitter is a storytelling medium, and so it is understandable that some of us turn to it to tell our saving stories, in whole or in part.

Not all of Twitter’s stories are saving stories, sure. Some of Twitter’s stories are banal. Most of Twitter’s stories, maybe, are banal. But, too, some are great and some are beautiful and some are terrible and the great stories and the beautiful stories and the terrible stories – all the saving stories – live alongside the banal stories and all of them, all of them draw us ’round the fire to hear and to share and – sometimes – to survive.

And that’s all that we need to know.

(Title from Ranier Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Elegy 1)