Leigh Alexander recently published a very interesting article about Twitter and the “personal” culture it has engendered. Connected to it, she also linked this wonderful piece on #followateen by Helena Fitzgerald and what it says about society as a whole.
One of the most depressing, yet truthful statements by Helena is that “people are mostly interesting when they’re not happy, when they’re fucking up, when things are going wrong.” This is not only true about Twitter, but of course about all other media, too. Who would watch a RomCom about a perfectly happy couple snuggling on the sofa? We need the drama; there’s nothing interesting about happiness.
To this applies the often-quoted “Anna Karenina principle“, which even has its own Wikipedia article to explain that Aristotle already said something similar; it can be generalized as “people who are happy are alike, people who are unhappy are all unhappy in their own way”. This applies to pretty much all narratives everywhere. Whether these narratives are produced on Twitter or Facebook, or in a Publishing House.
We love it when people tell us their innermost personal thoughts about how unhappy they are. There is only so much you can poetically say about bliss. Romances are interesting as long as it takes the protagonists to either get together, or die tragically. You could say (and many philosophers have) that this is the way we learn something from others and grow as people. Also, watching others struggle makes us more empathetic (and this is scientifically proven), because we realise we are all alike. Then again, many narratives are about unhappiness as a result of “fate” and “accidents”, which begs the question what I can learn from that except “life sucks occasionally”.
Oh well, but this is old news, you say. Yes it is, but I think it’s marvelous how people are beginning to realise that there’s just something different when it’s your own life on display, when it’s random strangers (or vague facebook aquaintances) who comment on your tweets and status updates as if you were a protagonist in their favourite show.
I have always been a defender of social media and the Intornetz in general; I never liked people who demonized everything digital on a general basis. Yet there’s no denying that Facebook, Twitter and the rest of them change the way we socialize. This ties in with another great article I read the other day, about this writer who lived offline for a year. I bet everyone was expecting him to have some kind of crazy epiphany, and to come back to proclaim that the Intornetz was evil and we don’t need it.
But the thing is, the internet, as are Twitter and Facebook, is only a tool. It’s rather versatile, and whether we use it to stalk people we will never meet in person or promote our business, it’s still just a tool. How we use it tells us loads about how we feel as human beings, and to examine that, in my opinion, is always a good step forward. People have always grappled with their different ways of “unhappiness” in one way or another, and proclaiming them on the internet is just the latest.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that as long as people, somewhere, care about each others’ unhappiness, I think we’ll be just fine.
PS: I am of course aware that commenting on these articles and what they meant to me is rather ironic, seeing that that’s precisely what Leigh critizised in the first place: “The need to ‘relate’ personally in order for information to seem relevant is another interesting consequence of the emphasis on the individual in the social media age.”