Friday, November 28, 2014

At a time like this

It was only a matter of time. But eventually, a (white) Facebook friend called out his Facebook friends for using Facebook to post cat videos and the like, when, you know, Ferguson. This post got dozens of likes. Privacy settings would presumably prevent me from checking, but I'm going to assume the likers are split between those who'd never have thought of cat videos at a time like this, and those who absolutely posted cat videos after news of the grand jury decision had broken, but who've been shown the error of their ways. There's also the person - not someone I know - who comments that her use of cute-animal sharing is her way of comforting herself at a time like this, and thus not evidence of ignorance or insensitivity, quite the contrary! Which... is both entirely plausible and unlikely to hold up in the court of social-media opinion.

We've been down this road before. But this time around, I've learned that there's a term for it: "social media signaling." At least I think that's what that expression refers to. What one does and doesn't put online ends up seeming like some kind of ultimate barometer for what a person thinks is important, when in reality, many people are keeping that-which-is-important (political opinions, photos of loved ones) off social media. But the way a feed works, it can seem as if Friend B's complaint about a coffee shop closing early (note: a complaint I've had) is somehow in response to Friend A's heartfelt analysis of police brutality, even if these two friends don't even know each other. It's jarring, though, and it makes Friend B look like a terrible person. Meanwhile, Friend C will be alternating posts about the serious and the trivial - what does it all mean?

Of course, the desire to avoid looking clueless can, in the aggregate, end up making the world a better place. As in, does it really matter if someone shared Ta-Nehisi Coates's reparations article because they want to signal their good-person-ness or out of a sincere belief that that's, you know, a really important story? Shared is shared, right?

The danger, though, is that a certain tone, or approach, has a way of inviting defensiveness. Accusing people of racism because they've shared cat videos - even if the accusation comes from a place of sincere outrage - will cause some to reflect, and others to roll their eyes and hide your subsequent updates.

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