Everything’s accelerated these days, and the same must be said for grief online. The Internet cycles through all five stages in as many tweets. We find it hurtling toward us: unavoidable, wall-to-wall.
And then, before we’ve processed it, the grief’s already gone.
In the four days since extremists slaughtered 129 people in Paris, millions of witnesses — present only through their computer screens — posted prayers and pictures and promised solidarity. For four hours, then five, then six, they trended Twitter hashtags like #PorteOuverte and #PrayforParis. They laid French flags over their Facebook photos and shared images by artists like Jean Jullien. And just as quickly, their posts reverted: back to quips about sports teams, viral videos, pictures with friends — now posted by little avatars striped in the French blue, white and red.
These posts feel inappropriate — indecorous, somehow. As if their posters were telling jokes at a very somber funeral. The world must move on, of course; no one’s saying it shouldn’t. And social media makes an imprecise weather vane for our collective conscience.
Still, it makes one wonder: Is there a half-life to grief? And has the Internet shortened it, as it has all other things?
On Twitter, the hashtag #PrayforParis trended globally for only five hours and 35 minutes on Saturday; #ParisAttacks did a little better, at six hours and change. (The Twitter algorithm is biased toward novelty.)
By Sunday, not a single solidarity hashtag made the top 100 trending topics, as measured by the analytics site Trendinalia. By Monday, even news organizations had cut their Paris tweets by half or more. I tallied every tweet sent by every major online-only publisher from Nov. 14 to Nov. 16, figuring these guys are the ones who best “get” the Internet; of them, only Business Insider has maintained the same ratio of Paris tweets — and it didn’t have much to begin with.
This is not, to be clear, meant as criticism: It’s merely an observation of fact. News breaks, and we’re devoured by it; interest decays logarithmically, online and off it, after that.
Part of that has to do with the natural ebbs and flows of information; part of it is human nature. (As Tom Hawking wrote in an essay for Flavorwire Tuesday, “we have emotional defense mechanisms for a reason.”) The Internet has undeniably sped everything up: it takes far less time to become famous, to spread a rumor, to talk to someone halfway around the world. And our Internet tools — whether Twitter’s algorithmic trending topics, or our phone’s chirps and pings — continually nudge us to seek out the next thing.
Maybe this “works,” quote-unquote, in daily life: there’s nothing inherently life-or-death in the Internet’s weird time compressions, nothing wrong with 15 minutes of fame shrinking to something much smaller.
But after a tragedy like the one in Paris, we need time for sustained, contemplative thought. And there is no time for anything, ever — the Internet moves on.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that social media is always inconsistent with introspection or contemplation; certainly it seems unfair to pan all displays of online grief as variants of meme. (Like memes, online outpourings may not last long; but ask Beirut: Their existence means something.)
The split-second half-life of social grief is problematic, however, because the research suggests that we need time to reflect — and we need to reflect to feel empathy. Short-circuiting that process exhausts our ability to feel for other people or help them or act to change anything. There’s a real risk, in other words, to processing grief with the speed and insincerity you would a viral meme.
Last week, on Nov. 9 — four days before the Paris attacks — the European Journalism Observatory published a report on the long-term impact that viral photos of a drowned Syrian toddler had on the immigration conversation there. You’ll remember the photos, which were — for a moment — absolutely everywhere.
For a week after the photos went viral, the report found, newspapers were far more sympathetic to refugees. But two weeks later? Three?
It was as if Aylan Kurdi never trended; the tone of the news coverage reverted back to what it had been previously.