Is Social Media The End of Endings?

I found this New Yorker piece fascinating for the way it looked at social media as a non-narrative form, and how it both celebrated and bemoaned what “the social stream” means for how we understand facts, the world, and the people in our lives.

It is especially interesting viewed through the debates about Twitter and orality. See here and here for the best of those debates.

How many of us have had this experience:

“Last year I watched a friend struggle through breast cancer treatment in front of hundreds of friends. She broadcast her news with caution, training her crowd in how to react: no drama, please; good vibes; videos with puppies or kittens welcomed. I watched two men grieve for lost children — one man I’ve only met online, whose daughter choked to death; one an old friend, whose infant son and daughter, and his wife and mother-in-law, died in an auto accident.

I watched in real time as these people reconstructed themselves in the wake of events — altering their avatars, committing to new causes, liking and linking, boiling over in anger at dumb comments, eventually posting jokes again, or uploading new photos. Learning to take the measure of the world with new eyes. No other medium has shown me this in the same way. Even the most personal literary memoir has more distance, more compression, than these status updates.

In the world of social media, it can feel bizarre that potent evidence of grieving from one friend is followed so quickly by pictures of oven-fresh cookies from another. But Facebook is generated by algorithms without feelings. Its not a narrative … Social media has no understanding of anything aside from the connections between individuals and the ceaseless flow of time: No beginnings, and no endings.”

via Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings? — Daily Intel.

That rootedness in connection – both emotional and algorithmic – is what makes social media so powerful and so problematic. I spent the last few years looking at the powerful role narrative and storytelling can play in social movements, and now I am grappling with the role a non-narrative structure like social media can play. And I am grappling with it, while working within it.

In the end, we take action both when we can make meaning and are moved to act and when we are seeking out meaning. These forms of understanding – social and textual -help move us in different ways. We need beginnings and endings, but we need the current that sweeps through the stream as well.

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