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

January 9, 2012

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)

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    Sandra January 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Yes, the storytelling…despite all of the fancy technology, aren’t we all just a group of Neanderthals gathered around the fire at night telling each other our stories? Still learning from them how we are the same and how we are different.

    Marinka January 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    We get comfort where we can. If in a moment of agony someone turns to Twitter, I’m glad that Twitter is there.

    What’s interesting to me is that so many people have strong opinions about how people should grieve, mourn, express shock and dismay. Their confidence is absolutely chilling.

    Her Bad Mother January 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    ‘chilling’ is exactly the right word. that people can be so confident that they know the ‘right way’ – and that they are justified in damning anyone does things in a manner different from how they would – is frightening.

    red pen mama January 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    THIS: “What’s interesting to me is that so many people have strong opinions about how people should grieve, mourn, express shock and dismay.”

    And opinions are how people should use social media the right way. It is rather breathtaking. I wonder if it’s arrogance or ignorance.

    Tigger January 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    I would agree – people who insist that others do things they way thought would are very chilling. While grieving my mothers death, and complaining to a friend of hers about dad forcing me to go to the cemetery once a month, she said “that’s part of the grieving process. You have to go, you have to spend time with your mother.” Um, excuse me, I don’t HAVE to do anything. My mother isn’t there – her body is, she is not. Going to the cemetery gave me vivid, horrifying nightmares for 2-4 days after every time. I did not want to go. Being told I HAD to was just wrong.

    And then you get those who will tell you “everyone grieves differently, but this is what I did and you should do it too”. That’s just as bad, imo.

    Kate of zMOMbie.com January 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I’m so happy to have social networking in times of crisis. It takes away the feeling of being so alone. The way people rally for eachother digitally is so nice since we now live in a world where too many people live apart from family and never talk to their neighbors.

    Maija @ Maija's Mommy Moments January 9, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Yes to all of this. I couldn’t have said it (nor will I ever be able to say it) better myself.

    Julia January 9, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Wonderfully well said. I lost my Dad last April. I facebooked it… it was much easier than making 100 phone calls, or letting the details trail around like chinese whispers / gossip. It made it easy for those that wanted to step forward and help, to do so. I’m pretty introverted. I didn’t want tons of phone calls to deal with.. facebook helped contain the sympathy.. it was there when I was ready to face it and engage with it, and I was able to do that on my terms. It really helped!

    tiff January 10, 2012 at 1:01 am

    last year, when we went for an ultrasound of two little lumps in my daughter’s chest it went from something simple to suddenly being told we were going to surgery. I tried to call my husband but he wasn’t picking up the phone and my mum didn’t pick up either. i was frightened and so I tweeted. I reached out the only way I could.My friends on twitter were there and they helped me to stay centred and not totally wig out. They sent kind thoughts and love through the internet to my daughter and for me. It helped alot.

    I wonder how something like that can be wrong?

    Aileen January 10, 2012 at 1:46 am

    This was amazing, thank you. It was just what I needed, when I needed it. Your words were perfect, and they resonated with me deeply.

    Kristine January 10, 2012 at 1:51 am

    Twitter was a lifeline for me. I don’t remember how I would have seen the light those early days without it.

    Lisa January 10, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Strange isn’t it? What comfort we can seek and find in 140 characters?

    Jaime January 10, 2012 at 11:02 am

    I want my husband to read this. Thank you for writing it.

    Andrea | EC Simplified January 10, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Tweeting at its core is simply communicating, and what is communicating but making something a shared memory, weaving a strand in the spiderweb story of life.

    Emma January 10, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Yes – we tweet, whether it’s something silly or something major, because our people are there and they hear us.

    Pinay WAHM Blogger January 11, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I think that there are many different views on this subject. Of course, a lot of people who tweet would say that they find comfort in letting a big crowd know about sad stories or tragedies but there are also others who deal with occurrences like this in a different way.

    Her Bad Mother January 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    absolutely – but it is precisely because everyone deals with these things differently that we should reserve judgment. you might not tweet a tragedy, and I fully understand why someone might not; I did, and can’t imagine (given my personal circumstances) doing otherwise. but I wouldn’t tell anyone that doing either was the wrong thing to do – my argument here is that it shouldn’t be judged.

    EmClementine January 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Exactly. I had a friend who criticized (in her status) the mothers who mention what a rough day they’re having on Facebook. She said we all knew parenthood was difficult and it didn’t need to be said. Someone else mentioned it was attention-getting. That seems judgmental to me (am I judging their judgment?). I don’t put everything out there, but that classic response the our children are conspiring against us, or in a crisi, that the people “around” us are thinking and sending prayers our way…that may be attention getting, but humans need to know that we have people “with” us. There’s nothing wrong with Internet communities, as long as we know we have other face-to-face support as well. I understand your story telling. My heart would have needed the same thing, had I lost a parent.

    Mom101 January 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Recently, I had a debate with an acquaintance who took a celebrity to task (brutally) for tweeting after her friend Amy Winehouse’s death. She called her a “fake,” asserting that no one in mourning would really tweet.

    I reminded her that when my grandmother died, I found immeasurable support online from a tweet about it. Yes, it’s like calling a friend. Yes, it’s like leaning over the fence. And it can be incredibly helpful to know that your friends are there to support you, but that people you don’t know at all are there to support you too.

    We never have a right to judge how others may behave in the face of tragedy.

    Amy @ Taste Like Crazy January 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    When my cousin killed himself, I tweeted it as soon as I got off of the phone with my mom. I needed to put it out there. To acknowledge that it had really happened. I didn’t care if I received a single response, and the responses I received actually made me uncomfortable.

    I guess the takeaway is Twitter was the safest place for me to face reality.

    Melissa @married my sugar daddy January 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    I’ve been having these recurring nightmares about my dad who passed several months ago- and at 4 am when I dont want to wake up my husband the next most comforting thing I can do FOR ME is to tweet, and I’ll tell you it feels good to get virtual comfort from the twitterverse at 4am when everything seems so still and scary.

    red pen mama January 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I like what Marinka said above. I actually recently posted about NOT tweeting something. How’s that for irony?

    I can’t believe people have to jump all over other people for how they choose to use social media — how they choose to tell their stories. That type of righteous indignation must be *exhausting*.

    Nissa January 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I live tweeted the night when my husband was missing, and I tweeted directly after the hospital called to tell me he had been in a horrific car accident caused by a drunk driver. I tweeted that my friend, who was driving the car was killed. For the month plus that my husband was hospitalized, I tweeted updates. I tweeted yesterday when we returned from the courthouse where the drunk driver was sentenced. My connections on Twitter are not just mindless drones. They are my friends. I have been talking to most of them since 2008, and I know some of them better than I know friends who live near. They are all over the country, in different places and time zones. I needed their support. I still do.

    Some people use Twitter to broadcast their blog posts, talk about marketing, and do business things. Some people use Twitter as an RSS feed. Some people have a ton of followers and barely follow anyone. And some people use Twitter to communicate with people who have like minds and interests, who in turn become real friends. These naysayers don’t get it.

    Her Bad Mother January 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Hugs to you, Nissa. And thanks.

    Loukia January 11, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Loved this.
    When my car was stolen in front of my eyes the first thing I did was tweet… and then, after, I called the police. Instinct.

    Carol January 19, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Please help me to get pregnant…


    Thank you.

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