Social Media As Catharsis

Earlier this year, London experienced an horrific situation, where two men brutally murdered another with a machete. Just the description of the event is traumatic enough, but this attack was made all the more real by how it unfolded on social media. Akin to what happens during most disasters today, the attack was livetweeted by a bystander.

What the what? How does… What goes through people’s heads?! Why, in the face of death and destruction, do people feel the need to share these horrible situations? I mean, you can make a case in some disaster situations that social sharing of pictures and descriptions serves some public good: informing people further away about their families, updating emergency responders on the scope of the situation, providing warning on a developing and evolving situation. But a singular attack? TechCrunch asked a similar question after the Asiana Airlines crash earlier this year, too:

Right now, we are rubbernecking on a global level. Good news goes unheard as we fall into an eager chorus of shock and sorrow. Each of us has a choice of whether to simply parrot the problems our world inevitably faces or use our voice to try to solve them. Let’s think before we tweet.

The post is titled, Why Do We Endlessly Retweet Tragedy?, and the question is a good one. Why do we do this? What causes people to let everyone in on this terrible secret that they’ve witnessed? There is some research on why that might be. The situation isn’t completely analogous, but you have to wonder if disastrous shows, like Breaking Bad cause similar feelings. Why do we watch them? Why would we revel in the downfall of a science teacher into a meth kingpin? Scientific American explores the theories:

We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy, but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

Tragedy is a deeply profound experience, and one that has the potential to affect each person for the rest of their lives. Given the humdrum of modern society, that excitement, that explosion of grief, fear and stress can be cathartic and allow us to feel more deeply, live more. To appreciate life. We share because we are alive, because we are feeling something greater than any other day. And if that’s true, there is nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural human reaction that is tied completely to emotions and deep brain functions.

So, what does that mean for us as communicators? It means that as much as we’d like to tell people to stop taking pictures, think before you tweet, stop making the situation worse, the public can’t. They are experiencing life–the bad part, yes, but still–they are alive and bursting at the seams with emotion and fear and dread and being able to talk about it is key to bouncing back from it. From being resilient. From recovering.

So when that next disaster happens, save your messages for what you’re best at and stop chastising the public for doing what might be in their best interest.