The Week Social Media Broke My Heart

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Do you still remember the Internet of last week, just another barrage of all-over-the-place political and cultural events in which millions of people watched, reacted and interacted online? It was the week that social media broke my heart.

On Wednesday afternoon, journalists and activists live-tweeted the suspenseful build-up to the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. Simultaneously, friends ranted about Facebook’s new format changes and music lovers cracked hackneyed jokes about R.E.M. breaking up through puns on their hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Activists and other seasoned politicos were circulating sarcastic observations about the organizational tactics of the protestors occupying Wall Street. Added to this were a steady trickle of tributes to Nirvana’s Nevermind on the occasion of its 20th anniversary and minute-by-minute updates on the in-process liberation of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer after two years of imprisonment in Iran.

By evening, my various feeds took on a competitive tone. Many on Twitter commented humorously they could feel the attention of white people shifting away from Davis and onto indie rock nostalgia as homages to R.E.M. started making the rounds. Later a graphic went viral on Facebook. It showed Troy Davis’ face next to text that read: “I’m glad everybody’s upset about Facebook changing.”

Point taken – some things are a bigger deal than others and it’s good to have perspective. White people like indie rock and are not frequently killed by our government. I got it. But also … something about the mean-spiritedness of it all didn’t sit right with me. Why are we so invested in judging each other’s real-time filtering of current events online? Of course a rock band breaking up isn’t as important as Troy Davis being killed. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t touched in real and important ways by it.

On Thursday morning, Facebook and Twitter were still full of anger and sadness about Davis, as well as brimming with emotional photos of the hikers arriving in Oman en route to the Bay Area. There were a lot of status updates about the “heartbreak and joy” of these concurrent events. As I shared my own blog post about R.E.M., I wondered if my circle of very political friends would comment sarcastically on my decision to talk about music the morning after the state had killed yet another innocent black man. And in music circles, I began to note a different but equally harsh strain of snark making the rounds as the big critics weighed in:

Robert Smith (of NPR, not of the Cure) sings about R.E.M. in karaoke version of “It’s the end of the world as we know it” and can barely stop himself from chuckling most of the way through.

Rob Sheffield headlines his Rolling Stone article on R.E.M. “Thank You for Running It Into the Ground” and then proceeds to declare Life’s Rich Pageant (1986) the moment R.E.M. jumped the shark.

Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker writes more thoughtfully, but still has an overall tone of condescension about the ’90s, R.E.M., and their popularity: “[With Everybody Hurts...] all of R.E.M.’s luminous oddness and nested beauty is turned into penny taffy.”

In the Chicago Reader, Jessica Hopper voices deep anger about the shameless repackaging of a generation’s spirit and bitterly compares Kurt Cobain’s cultural meaning to Jim Morrison’s — action figures and all — for today’s teenagers.

These are all critics I admire and they all make good points. But after the heightened emotion of the previous day’s mess of media events, I felt overwhelmed. Critics are supposed to be critical, sure, but when they start using the first person, aren’t they also supposed to pay tribute to art’s real impact on their lives, not simply debate who sold out and when? When paying homage to two of the most influential bands of the 1990s, where was the music?

Critics want it both ways: we want something to be pure and essential, but we also tend to retrospectively see events based solely on their context/reaction. Particularly in social media, context develops at an increasing pace: we condense the critical cycle into a series of quick “sharing” actions and move straight from “something happens” into criticizing ourselves and each other for liking things. In our rushed effort to provide the “essential” opinion, we forget the part about why we’re being critical in the first place: because the “something” happened made us feel something, and that made us want to contribute.

Perhaps what we should bring back along with the rest of ’90s culture is sincerity. Forget witty bitterness; show me a critic who believes in music the way that the musicians in Nirvana and R.E.M. believed. Show me shared media that can balance leonine ego with intimate emotional pain like these albums can. Show me a meme that can mix politics with poetry in a way that makes you want to get off your couch and actually do something. And in exchange, I’ll show you a lot of human beings who are able to process, feel, and experience large and small events at the exact same time.

So dear Internet, please stop. Just… stop with the judging.

Stop for a minute, and don’t share this link on Facebook until you finish reading it and have thought about it. Find Nevermind and listen to it without doing anything else at the same time. Then listen to the formerly independent-label band of your choosing without getting defensive and relating that band’s mainstream status to your own personal evolution of coolness. Hear those words? Those songs? They are important. They are sincere.

Yes, the Internet has made us all critics. We are spewing media into the world and we are consuming it in the same breath. Pop does and will continue to eat itself. The Internet, like a person, is complex. But let’s see what happens if we reign it in for a minute, shall we? I’ll start it off by sharing with you, friends real and virtual, my own critical complexity:

I feel weary horror and urgent anger at the continued campaign of violence against people of color that is the American “correctional” system, and because I am continually implicated in it the more I do not actively fight it. I feel wistful about R.E.M. breaking up because they were a truly unique band and I liked them. I am upset about the recent Facebook changes because I know this company is turning me into a product and I’m enabling it. I am disappointed in the activist community for behaving just like the media we criticize and not taking the Wall Street protestors seriously until the police escalated the situation. I am happy the hikers were freed, but I am worried about the callousness with which people blame them for their ordeal, as well as the potential for events like this to reinforce racist and anti-Islamic sentiment in America. I feel sad about the slutification of Nirvana, but I also hope their ubiquity will guarantee that future generations of 15-year-olds hear their music — and that the music itself will guarantee some of those kids feel it in their guts the same way I did when I was 15.

I am able to hold all these feelings inside me at once. Bands like R.E.M. and Nirvana helped me learn how to do that. Venues like Facebook help me express it. People like Troy Davis, who last Wednesday declared his innocence while forgiving his killers and still showing sympathy for Marc MacPhail’s family, help me understand the capacity in humans for boundless love and empathy, even in the face of the most horrible things. And empathy is a necessary preface to action.

Come on, you guys. There’s scarce room for snark in all this. It’s not a competition. People are messy and conflicted. We can be simultaneously egotistical and share profound experiences, or be outraged and still act silly. We can “like” pop culture and still want to fight the power. Now, can we be a bit more genuine with one another? Stop. Think. Be true to your feelings. Be sincere. Can we still do that?

The morning after Troy Davis was killed, I cried at photos of Josh and Shane hugging their parents. I also cried while listening to R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me” and reading the Tumblr We Are the 99 Percent. I smiled at a photo of Howard University students giving the black power salute in unison, their mouths taped shut in silent protest of Davis’ execution. And I put on Smells Like Teen Spirit and jumped up and down in my living room, knowing that we all still have a bit of fight in us.


Manjula Martin lives in San Francisco, where she makes fiction, criticism, and poetry for journals like Post Road, Deep Oakland, and Fugue and works as a nonprofit communications type. She writes about music at The Record Daily. More from this author →