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A Proposal for a Weekend of Social Media Silence

December 18, 2012 By:
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How do you broach something so tragic as the Newtown school shooting on Facebook and Twitter? Or do you at all?

The right answers to those questions become even more difficult to figure out when news reports and Tweets about "thoughts and prayers" feel like deja vu from five months ago when a shooter disrupted the calm of a movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.

Some people have suggested holding off on talk about the need for stricter gun control, which inevitably prompts rebuttals about the source of the problem being an individual’s mind, not the gun he carried — or that outlawing guns only disarms law-abiding citizens. By their logic, arguments about laws and policy crudely shift the focus from mourning to political agendas.

Then there are those who have called for a moratorium on social media updates about weekend plans, pats on the back and just letting the world know how much fun you’re having.

"Any chance we can hold the sports tweets for awhile as the nation mourns the loss of so many in Newtown?" one friend wrote.

The logic here: While we write about happy aspects of life, a parent in Connecticut had one less lunch to pack on Sunday night. If we write about our personal triumphs and much less dire tribulations, we are in some way making light of their grief. Let’s not distract from that for our Sunday football rituals.

The instinct for people who are active on social media may be to criticize others for updates that are insensitive, to shout at those on "the wrong end" of the gun control debate. However valid you think such responses are, I think it’s worth thinking about whether the problem isn't the note on the bulletin board, but the board itself.

When we gather at sporting events, public meetings and schools after a community has lost one of its own, we delay the usual proceedings, close our mouths and enter into silence. The thought is that if we don't talk, we will think about what is missing.

I'm not an especially bountiful contributor on Facebook or Twitter, but as I scrolled both sites over the weekend, I had one recurring thought: Wouldn't it be better if we just stopped posting anything for just enough time to catch our breath? By removing something like Facebook that consumes so many people, might a more meaningful reaction emerge to fill that vacuum?

No matter how genuine people may be, it only takes a few seconds to write that your thoughts are with the victims of the school shooting. I'm not sure what good it does. People take the most comfort in family and friends, not in 140 characters from strangers across the country — regardless of how well-meaning those strangers are.

The urge to post on Facebook or Twitter is driven by a desire to get others’ attention, otherwise we would just write in diaries and create photo albums. I’m not saying this to bash others; I’m guilty of the same impulse.

I mention this because of the role I think Facebook plays in shaping our routines and thought processes, the way I see it sometimes limiting original ideas.

When we look at the world through Facebook, don't we in some way see it through the same lens? The updates come in different tones, in slang, in coded language or in straightforward pleas. But no matter how different all of our personalities and circumstances are, Facebook often seems to homogenize our responses.

If you scan your Facebook and Twitter feeds today, you’ll probably notice that chatter has already started to return to normal. It was high tide over the weekend and now people can again calmly surf the Internet.

My proposal is this: Rather than watching charged emotions boil and then seeing the status quo ultimately return, let’s try something different this time. By this Friday, one week will have passed since the tragedy and our minds will probably be focused on the weekend. Instead of sharing our big plans, how about observing a few days of social media silence?

People have far-ranging opinions about who should be allowed to carry a gun and what that gun should look like and how much ammunition it should be able to hold. But we all seem to agree that something is wrong in this country, and we need a change to start somewhere. I think it can start with something ordinary like abstaining from Facebook for a couple of days.

When you would normally reach for your iPhone, stop and think about the sort of people you admired when you were in elementary school. Think about whether you’re living a life that might make a first grader want to give you a high five. Think about the 20 elementary school children in Newtown who will no longer be able to raise their hands in class and who will never get the chance to share their dreams of becoming firefighters or their tee-ball victories on Facebook.

Perhaps a weekend without social media will leave you feeling confined, at a loss for how to share your good times. Maybe you'll arrive at work Monday morning and grumble on Twitter about how Monday mornings are painful, but not as bad as this idea a writer had. Or maybe the conscientious break in routine will cause you to approach life differently or stumble onto new ideas or find more meaningful ways to affect positive change outside of social media.

Fortunately, we all still have that chance.

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