Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Tragically Short Half-Life of Online Empathy

Everything’s accelerated these days, and the same must be said for grief online. The Internet cycles through all five stages in as many tweets. We find it hurtling toward us: unavoidable, wall-to-wall.

And then, before we’ve processed it, the grief’s already gone.

In the four days since extremists slaughtered 129 people in Paris, millions of witnesses — present only through their computer screens — posted prayers and pictures and promised solidarity. For four hours, then five, then six, they trended Twitter hashtags like #PorteOuverte and #PrayforParis. They laid French flags over their Facebook photos and shared images by artists like Jean Jullien. And just as quickly, their posts reverted: back to quips about sports teams, viral videos, pictures with friends — now posted by little avatars striped in the French blue, white and red.

These posts feel inappropriate — indecorous, somehow. As if their posters were telling jokes at a very somber funeral. The world must move on, of course; no one’s saying it shouldn’t. And social media makes an imprecise weather vane for our collective conscience.

Still, it makes one wonder: Is there a half-life to grief? And has the Internet shortened it, as it has all other things?

What's the half-life of Internet solidarity?

On Twitter, the hashtag #PrayforParis trended globally for only five hours and 35 minutes on Saturday; #ParisAttacks did a little better, at six hours and change. (The Twitter algorithm is biased toward novelty.)

By Sunday, not a single solidarity hashtag made the top 100 trending topics, as measured by the analytics site Trendinalia. By Monday, even news organizations had cut their Paris tweets by half or more. I tallied every tweet sent by every major online-only publisher from Nov. 14 to Nov. 16, figuring these guys are the ones who best “get” the Internet; of them, only Business Insider has maintained the same ratio of Paris tweets — and it didn’t have much to begin with.

This is not, to be clear, meant as criticism: It’s merely an observation of fact. News breaks, and we’re devoured by it; interest decays logarithmically, online and off it, after that.

by Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post | Read more:
Image: EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo