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Coming to terms with digital grief: hashtags and emojis are here to stay

I was on a train when the news broke from Brussels of a deadly terrorist attack. It was a fast developing story and, as is so often the case with today’s breaking news, social media was keeping pace with it far more efficiently than the “official” news outlets.

But it’s not just in breaking news that social media dominates. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook have also come to be used for articulating emotion and grief after the event. And with the apparent abysmal increase in these kinds of attacks, social media now appears to have developed specific channels and formats for these expressions. It has come to provide a uniformity and familiarity to the post-traumatic impact of senseless mass murder.

These emerging techno-rituals present an interesting question though. Is social media providing us with a universal common language of outrage, or an emotionally impotent grief 2.0?

One of the first things users of Facebook were invited to do following both the Paris and Brussels attacks was to create a temporary profile picture depicting the flag of the country involved.

Users could even set the picture automatically to revert back to their normal, smiley, happy, un-traumatised profile picture after a prescribed period of hours or days. This gives users the ability to limit their public depiction of personal outrage to a finite amount of time. A very unofficial observation of my own Facebook community seems to suggest that this period is around three days.

Such emerging conventions are not dissimilar to those attached to mourning clothes in the Victorian era. These were a message to the outside world that the wearer was impacted by death but they were also usually worn only for a finite period, after which regular attire would be resumed.

Twitter, due to its format, is more linguistic than visual in its version of these rituals. A common hashtag is quickly established and used in thousands of ensuing expressions of outrage. Hashtagging one’s 140 characters denotes membership of the international community of the horrified. People are unified through commonly experienced despair.

However, like the temporary profile pictures on Facebook, hashtags are, by their very nature, a fluid function. No matter what the subject matter, social media is built on fluidity, so each hashtag will quickly flow away, too.

Growing organically out of the capabilities of these sites, it may well be the case that these functions represent a new ritualised response to grief in our networked society. We increasingly narrate our daily experiences and emotions, good and bad, to strangers and friends alike online. Consequently, responding to moments of unexpected violence through the same networks seems ever more befitting.

And in a new twist, Facebook has rolled out a broader range of status responses so users can now choose to use an emoji expressing love, laughter, anger or sadness in response to a post rather than just liking it. The use of the sadness emoji was prolific in the comments fields of posted articles and statuses around the Brussels attacks.

People were reading bloody and explicit accounts of these explosions and registering their outrage with a sad yellow face. To confine all reactions to one of five possibilities suggests a move towards a rather empty form of grief 2.0. There is a sense that we are using picture cards to respond to the most horrifying of spectacles.

But this apparent emotional impotency and its widespread uptake by users is perhaps also an expression of the need to take control as we look upon one horror after another.

To choose the same emoji to express our sadness at the end of our favourite television series and articulate our response to a bomb exploding in a packed airport may seem inappropriate and in poor taste. But perhaps when we turn to social media in the aftermath of these events we are looking to exhaust their impact, and empty them of fear and evil.

Finding ever more “efficient” ways to do this, through emojis or hashtags, might be the very best response we can have. The kind of terrorism seen in Brussels is being described as the new normal. But to accept this is to live a life defined by it, and also to be distracted from its root causes.

These emerging techno-rituals exist on a continuum that first unifies and then nullifies our experience. The temporary Facebook profile reverts back to the original one, a different hashtag starts to trend. And so the cycle begins again.

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