Social numbing

It happens with birthdays and mass shootings, the death of a loved one and sweet human interest stories about kids waiting at bus stops with no jackets. Emotional triggers. Since it is a given that we are almost always online, and spending much of that time flitting about social media sites of one kind or another, we are under near constant emotional bombardment when it comes to the kinds of stories and information we are most likely to react to.

Take birthdays, for instance. Setting aside, for a moment, the fact that the idea of celebrating one’s birthday can be seen as the consummate act of narcissism, it is a common behaviour and a well-established tradition in most cultures around the world. But wishing someone a happy birthday by jotting down a line or two on their wall, or worse, texting in a canned phrase, seems a little less meaningful than it once might have been. Yes, there was a reaction to the algorithmically generated prompt to remind you that your friend X has a birthday today, but otherwise, it fails to make any real impact other than create a whirl of birthday spam that clutters up your inbox or fires up your phone all day long with messages that are largely meant to be seen but not responded to.

Or are you supposed to respond? And if so, do you thank one or many at the same time in some kind of generic, #blessed post about being grateful for the kind words even if you suspect the vast majority of them were cut and pasted.

Call me curmudgeonly, but I think there is a truly anti-social aspect to much of what passes for social behaviour online and it’s depressing.

Whenever the next terrorist attack occurs in some place in the world, millions of social media users will cover their profile pictures with the relevant flag or hashtag of the targeted victims and we will all collectively swoon in sadness, disgust and rage over this latest obscenity. For like, a day. Maybe two.

Or if you happen to have personally suffered a tragedy of loss or suffering, you’ll receive a wave of “supportive” messages and offers of condolences, which you will largely be feeling too exhausted and emotionally drained to even look at, let alone respond to in any way. Worse, you may find yourself chasing after the rampant social media fire lit by being the source of some kind of shareable, emotionally riveting piece of news, and have to broadcast in ALL CAPS to your “friends” to please remove their post because you haven’t actually talked to all the real people, in real life, whose lives are actually tangibly affected by the latest trending tragedy.

Of course the messages and the posts and the shares are well-intentioned. I have no doubt that there is mostly goodness in most people, and that the impetus to connect with each other during any kind of fear/sadness inducing experience is a natural reaction and serves to strengthen communal ties that serve a greater good. What concerns me is the rapidity with which this same motivating force is extinguished without having achieved any of its posited potential good. Sadly, it often merely reinforces the narcissistic trend towards unconscious selfish behaviour that so much of what passes for “social” is really about.

We see, read or hear about something that touches us, and we instantly react. Often hitting the share button before finishing the article or watching the whole clip, and rarely, if ever, considering if this “reaction” will help or hinder.

Does it actually help the sufferers of a terrorist strike to broadcast horrific images, in real time, of innocent victims of senseless, cowardly attacks? Or does it fuel and inspire other lurking cowards whose weak and shattered egos thrive on the impact and attention they see their “brothers” receiving around the world?

Do people who’s lives have just been torn apart by the sudden loss of a loved one actually benefit from having their personal tragedy shared and broadcast across a publicly accessible network to complete strangers?

Do I have to worry about your lackadaisical attitude to your privacy settings if I’ve shared in private some bad personal news?

Even the good news shares can do damage despite the best intentions of unwitting amplifiers who believe they are participating in some kind of social activism. I’m sorry, but posting a picture of a boy pulled out of the rubble in Syria doesn’t actually stop Russian jets from carpet bombing the collapsed remnants of cities in Syria. But it does suck away a bit — perhaps all — of the energy that might otherwise go into actually doing something to stop the murders of innocents by illegitimate tyrants?

Because, the hard part about making a difference is that, well, it’s hard. It’s hard to have a real impact or move society into behaving better towards each other. That kind of work is slow and plodding. It’s the every-day work of charities, and organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières or Room to Read and usually its best practitioners are humble, selfless individuals, the majority of which I suspect, don’t spend a lot of time online reacting to events, but actually roll up their sleeves and do the work on the ground that makes things a little less awful for the people around them they can help.

People suffering from slow, steady painful conditions like chronic depression or debilitating illnesses, or lack of drinking water in their communities don’t get better because you post a cheery, uplifting video about depression, or dying with dignity, or overcrowded housing in northern communities.

Making real change happen actually requires that you stand up, think about what you care about and what you can do, and then actually doing it. It isn’t likely to be glamorous or newsworthy. Few people, if any, may really notice. And that should be okay. If you can actually do something good and useful for one person, you’ve done more than the vast majority of people ever do no matter how many times they’ve updated their profile picture or hash tagged the current crises.

(originally published on