It’s cool to be sad: The search to understand online grief and digital melancholy

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 - 1:56pm

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Sherry Chen/Daily

It’s no secret that the happy moments we post onto the internet are often a façade for the sadness we hide from ourselves and the rest of the world. Whether it’s posting about a job acceptance on Facebook, a video of partying at a nightclub on Snapchat or a photo at an exotic resort on Instagram, social media acts as a sort of smoke screen for our unfulfilled desires. We attempt to construct an idealistic, perfected image online in order to replace the gritty, flawed one that exists in real life.

But what happens when we do broadcast that gritty, flawed image online? What happens when we expose the part of ourselves we are so scared to share in the real world within our digital communities? How do we reckon with being vulnerable and open about our sadness without seeming performative?

Through my own deductions from having spent a considerable amount of time on the internet, there seem to be at least three patterns of communicating sadness online. The first, most commonly found on Twitter and finstas, comes in the form of dark humor, where irony and self-deprecation are employed as a vehicle for discussing mental health, unrequited love and personal insecurities through unfiltered posts and tongue-in-cheek memes. The second, most commonly found on Facebook and Instagram, comes in the form of melancholic sincerity, in which the loss of a loved one, the death of an important figure in pop culture or the news of a national tragedy are commemorated through a series of heartfelt, essay-like paragraphs. The third, most commonly found on Tumblr, aestheticizes sadness under the guise of GIFs and pictures that juxtapose intense poems and quotes about loneliness and anxiety with attractive people crying alone, drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.

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Design by Christine Jegarl

In her experience using Tumblr, LSA sophomore Rachael Merritt believes this third type of online sadness is especially unhealthy and toxic.

“On Tumblr, a lot of the time, (people) will make something disturbing sound beautiful or put a romanticized twist on it,” Merritt said. “There are so many pictures of roses on Tumblr, roses with blood.” 

“Lana Del Rey shit,” I interjected during our conversation. “Oh my God, so much,” she replied.

I reference singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey simply because her vintage Americana aesthetic and gloomy lyrics about love and loss are not only perpetuated to a fault on Tumblr but are also fetishized, stylized and celebrated among her devoted online fan base. The artist grew into popularity after the release of her 2012 major label debut Born to Die, right around the time Tumblr became a viral sensation among high school teens. Though Del Rey’s music has matured since then, her wistful, edgy artistic sensibility, matched with the glamorized heartache she exuded on Born to Die, left a long-standing impact on how internet users perceived their own sadness.

By branding sadness through this aesthetic, Del Rey’s nostalgia-heavy iconography and other images like it have allowed people, not just teen girls, to buy into the idea that their sadness is not only valid, but also functions as a kind of cool accessory. People on Tumblr who experience mental illness, self-harm and eating disorders no longer had to feel ashamed due to the relatability of the sad aesthetic associated with Del Rey embedded within that space.

Merritt cited Effy Stonem, a character from the popular British TV series “Skins,” as another example of how sad culture on Tumblr exploits its users by appealing to their desire for validation.

“I’ll see a picture of Effy (on Tumblr) and she’ll be crying, tears running down her face,” Merritt said. “But at the same time, you want her life because you idealize her. It’s this bizarre thing where you see all these people doing negative things, things you relate to depression or mental illness or sadness or destructive behavior, and kind of glamorizes it.”

Tumblr’s obsession with Effy goes beyond basic depictions of her expressing grief and sadness. There’s a whole subculture dedicated to her, from fan art to style blogs to comprehensive commentary on the psychology behind her character’s actions.

As a cultural touchstone that represented teenagers who experience depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, “Skins” as a whole remains a prominent source of romanticized sad fodder on Tumblr. Along with Effy, the show incorporated other characters who were known to defy social conventions, which included experimenting with drugs and alcohol, engaging in casual sex and exhibiting antisocial behavior. Like with Del Rey, subcommunities on Tumblr reframed the instability of Effy’s and other “Skins” characters’ lives into something attractive and exciting through which people can live vicariously.

Since Tumblr is known as a platform for escapism, pop culture is often used as a canvas for those who are most vulnerable and misguided to project their anxieties and emotions. Tumblr users don’t have to feel as ashamed about the darker elements of their suffering. Instead, they can find solace in their own misery through someone else’s, which inevitably realigns their perception of sadness from being a seemingly inescapable terror to an illusory spectacle.

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In contrast to how people on Tumblr channel their sadness through glamorized aesthetics, people with finsta accounts advertise their sadness through unfiltered journal entries. “Finstas” — a portmanteau of “fake” and “Insta” — refer to an exclusive Instagram account users create to share a more vulnerable side of themselves only for their closest friends to see.

Like an updated version of LiveJournal from the mid-aughts, finstas operate as a sort of secret haven, where people can talk about their most intimate thoughts, ranging from newly developed romantic crushes and family issues to frustrations with friends and mental health. They can also be a fun way for the select group of people who follows you to see your flaws without fear of judgment, a reassuring alternative to Instagram, where the quantity of likes and comments tend to dictate self-worth. But similar to Tumblr’s detrimental reinforcement of one’s sadness, there is a drawback that comes with finstas if they’re used for the sole purpose of getting something off your chest.

I discovered finstas at the beginning of sophomore year, right about when they started trending on campus. Seeing that my friends had their own finstas, I decided to make one for myself. For two years, I created a litany of posts with lengthy captions about getting rejected, complaining about my heavy load of homework, venting about my fraught emotional well-being and my frustrations with my family. Sometimes, these posts were laced with irony and self-deprecation. Other times, they were much more open and honest. There were some posts that contained a mix of both humor and sincerity.

Even though I knew deep down that the constant reinforcement wasn’t good for me, getting a like on my finsta meant more to me than getting a like on an Instagram post. A like on a finsta post meant that people were actually seeing me for me, as opposed to the “me” I built on my real Instagram. A comment was an even greater gift. It meant that someone was compelled enough to reveal themself and acknowledge this hidden facet of my inner world.

Toward the end of junior year, I accepted the fact that perhaps I was oversharing a bit on my finsta and took a break from posting. Despite the attention that comes with shamelessly telling secrets to a small group of close friends, there’s only so much you can share about yourself to the point where you no longer feel like you’re doing this just for you. You become aware of the fact that there is an audience of people you trust examining your posts and expecting you to churn out a specific type of content. It almost feels a bit like schadenfreude, but even more twisted and sadistic. People take pleasure from watching you joke about your pain, just as much as you take pleasure from giving them that satisfaction. It is no longer just an ephemeral form of catharsis, but rather a comfortable self-indulgence.

“Over time, you get a community of people who slowly understand you and that you feel supported by, but that doesn’t necessarily fix anything,” Merritt mentioned. “They’re there to comfort you always, but it’s not like a real sort of comfort that helps you.”

Sadness can be a wonderful thing when we recognize it as a shared, universal experience. But as evidenced by Tumblr and finstas, online sadness can be tricky and messy based on how it distorts the way we deal with our demons. The constant tension between the real feelings we put out into the digital world and the artifice of the digital world itself presents a troubling question: Can we ever truly be genuine about our sadness if the medium through which we express it is manufactured?

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Design by Christine Jegarl

Which brings me to Twitter, perhaps the most fascinating and depressing online space for expressing sadness. In the same way that finstas allow people to rid themselves of their deepest, darkest thoughts, the anonymity of Twitter gives users a platform to eradicate those icky feelings to the extreme, sometimes without any repercussions.

“I’m always surprised by how willing people are to share,” LSA senior Brandon whose name has been changed to protect his social media accounts said. “I see people tweeting about being back at some mental health institution or, ‘Yeah, I just took some pills.’ It’s kind of insane.”

Brandon is referring to a subculture on Twitter that circulates provocative and often risqué tweets regarding issues of mental health.

Popular Twitter user @jovanmhill, whose account is now disabled, is known for being unabashedly vocal about his bipolar disorder and mining wry humor from it. One example of his style is shown through an Oct. 5, 2018 tweet when he reposted a video from TikTok user Enoch True with the caption “my brain cells committing mass suicide.”

Internet humor is primarily based on finding the specific absurdities in everyday life and spinning it into something everyone can relate to on a certain level. In the case of @jovanmhill, who has 115 followers, a lot of that humor is based on the way he laments disturbing truths about his personal life. For better or worse, joking about mental health has become a primary avenue for people to forge an online community of shared suffering, much like with finstas. The only difference is that everyone’s sadness becomes much more publicized and therefore harder to contain.  

“At first, it acts as a net where you feel validated and stand up for yourself more,” Merritt said. “But at the same time, when you transfer how you feel to this online community, you sort of alienate yourself in a way from the rest of the world. It turns from, ‘This community understands me’ to, ‘No one else does.’”

“It helps to see that other people are going through similar things and provides exposure and perspective to it,” Brandon commented. “But at the same time, it kind of enables it because I think there’s definitely a way in which we can romanticize it.”

Having a strong internet presence relies a lot on not only maintaining a brand, but a banter with followers. Twitter is particularly intriguing in how it breeds conversations between different accounts that share similar interests or, in this particular context, a collective misery.

“The only reason you’re connected is because of your problems and they want to maintain that community,” Merritt said. “If you all of a sudden are like, ‘Oh, I’m better, I had an excellent day,’ you’re no longer relatable.”

LSA senior Regina whose name has been changed to protect her social media accounts offered a slightly different perspective about how Twitter feels like the only reliable source of comfort for many.

“Social media is one of the only places to connect to people like you about how sad it all is. If you do that in real life, people around you tend to get more upset than you necessarily want them to be,” Regina said. “It feels better to just like, joke about it on the internet, to commiserate in our mutual fucking misery. Sure there are tangible solutions, but I think we forget how inaccessible and stigmatized therapy and medicine really are for a lot of people.”

As Regina noted, a lack of access to therapy and medicines can play a huge role in why people are prone to expressing their sadness so explicitly on Twitter, especially since the internet provides not only a safe space for those struggling with trauma or mental illness, but a free one.

Still, the line between genuinely expressing sadness online versus performing sadness for a phantom audience continues to be blurred. As Susannah Chandhok, a second-year doctoral student studying social psychology at the University of Michigan, points out, this issue is intrinsic to the way Twitter and social media in general is structured.

“The psychological distance that exists online can facilitate being more open and making saying things you wouldn’t want to say face-to-face,” Chandhok said. “But then at the same time, it can also facilitate more confrontation because there’s more distance and people aren’t picking up on verbal cues as much as you would be with nonverbal cues.”

The almost uninhibited amount of personal autonomy that Twitter affords its users makes me wonder what lengths people are willing to take to talk about their issues before it becomes a serious situation — and if we, as members of the online community, are willing to take the responsibility for the consequences that come with it.

Picking up on these cues are a huge marker for differentiating the tone of a tweet from the intention, especially in one recent instance where rapper Elizabeth Harris, known by her stage name Cupcakke, tweeted on Jan. 8: “im about to commit suicide.” Known for her more raunchy posts, Harris’s alarming tweet provoked confusion and unease from her fans. After being hospitalized, Harris issued an update on Twitter the following day: “I’ve been fighting with depression for the longest ..sorry that I did it public last night but I’m ok.”

Harris’ tweet is a rare and harrowing case in which someone’s sadness on Twitter is not only fully and completely displayed, but done so without the heightened pretense of comedy. 

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While Twitter seems preoccupied with turning communal sadness into a fun and often juvenile social space, Facebook seems more concerned with making collective sadness an aggressively earnest force. It’s a place where people can band together for the greater good of humanity over the most recent and relevant tragedy, whether individual or collective, on a local scale or global scale.

“For one reason or another, it’s sort of developed as a cultural norm to express important events online,” Merritt said. “People feel this obligation almost that if someone important dies, they have to show that they were important, to show their followers that they’re grieving about it. They had to leave a last memento.”

Facebook users seemed to have adopted an unspoken agreement, wherein folks often commemorate the death of a family member in a lengthy post or sometimes with a simple, sentence-length caption along with a picture. By and large, their friends will like or comment on the post. The same is usually done on Instagram. Because both platforms are known for upholding more positive shared news or experiences, disclosing the despair that fosters from someone’s death or a national calamity is sometimes the only way in which someone can lay their soul bare.

But given that Facebook is built on giving our friends updates on our lives, there is a kind of social pressure that comes with partaking in the discourse surrounding serious subject matter. If you don’t show support for someone who has lost a relative, it comes off as insensitive. If you don’t acknowledge a mass shooting or a death of a pop culture figure, it’s almost like you aren’t part of the conversation or are uninterested in participating in it. The same goes for Instagram, where announcing the death of a loved one or memorializing the anniversary of a national tragedy becomes expected. Once again, our sadness becomes a spectacle, an easy and accessible way to manage the shock of sudden disruptions in our lives.

There’s another cost that comes with sharing a bevy of negative information on Facebook, particularly for those who have clinical depression.

According to a 2016 research study conducted by members of the Department of Psychology at the University, depression was found to be positively correlated with social support from Facebook networks when participants disclosed negative information, but negatively correlated with how much social support participants thought they received from their Facebook network.

“People with depression actually do receive more social support on Facebook, but they perceive less, so there’s a mismatch,” Chandhok said. “Social media can be a place where people find support, can reach out for help, but there might be a lack of seeing that support, perceiving and being able to benefit from it.”

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Design by Christine Jegarl

Which brings me to my final question: Do social media and technology make us sadder and more vulnerable or simply expose how sad and vulnerable we actually are?

Along with the aforementioned paper, a recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania suggests the former, contending that social media use — particularly on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat — increases levels of depression and loneliness. But another recent survey reported by NBC News indicates that at least 90 percent of teens and young adults with symptoms of depression go online for information about mental health issues, using social media as a expository for a therapist.

Perhaps it goes even deeper than the way we express sadness. Tim Schwartz, an L.A.-based artist and digital strategist, figures that some of the melancholy we experience online stems from the shift in format of the technology we use today and our narcissistic obsession with digital technology. He cited the “digital Dark Age” as the reason why.

“The digital Dark Age is the idea that if you write or print something on paper, paper can last 500 years,” Schwartz said. “If you record something on film, it can last for a couple hundred years. But we have no long-term backup systems for digital information. Hard drives last five years. DVDs last 20 years. In order to keep information around for a long time, it takes a lot of upkeep for digital and we don’t actually have standards for how to do it.”

“My thought is that because we’re living in this state of euphoric production of information,” Schwartz continued, “We just kind of don’t worry about the fact that it’s all lost or we just kind of internalize it and it’s just there and we’ve already decided that we don’t care that our things are saved.”

When we are confronted with our emotions, the internet primes us to compartmentalize them. The online world becomes our coping mechanism, but also a way for us to make the transience of the sad moments in our lives feel permanent. Perhaps the reason online sadness is such a strange phenomenon is because there already is a sense of loss built into it.

We are constantly seeking the temporary gratification that social media provides us because there is something missing within us. As a result, we latch onto whatever we can to make us feel better, whether that’s painting a happy, flawless portrait of our life online or giving the online world the ugliest parts of ourselves. It’s a slightly unfortunate reality, but I’d like to think that moderating our happiness with our sadness is the best way to reconcile with that missing part and hopefully leave an imprint that will last forever.