The importance of online silence

Photo by Ina Jacobe

With instant access to every bit of news comes the pressure to instantly react, to publicize our opinions faster than we can really process the questions: What’s happening? What’s on your mind?

So what happens? For some of us, everything comes out a little half-baked.

Don’t get me wrong: social media outrage culture is an alluring phenomenon that permeates the walls of the virtual spaces we inhabit. It’s hard to steer clear. Participation means catharsis, an airing out of pent-up frustration. It means gratification in the form of like-minded followers giving you the thumbs up. It means letting people know who’s boss by piling on the ignorant until they concede “defeat” — or, at least, until their argument dies trying. It means successfully establishing yourself as a worthy contender in the Woke Olympics. Right?

Not necessarily.

This is something I still struggle with myself: deciding when or when not to comment. Every time I scroll through any of my social media feeds, there’s a stream of issues that are asking for their cut of my attention. When Ghost in the Shell (2017) finally hit cinemas, my feeds ran red with “technically the lead is raceless, so you SJWs can choke” and “Scarlett Johansson ruined a necessarily Asian narrative with her whiteness,” with 5:1 in favor of f*** whitewashing. When Uber became the poster brand for gross opportunism after it tweeted that it was turning off surge pricing at JFK during the strike against Trump’s travel ban, it seemed everyone couldn’t wait to #DeleteUber. After local band Sud’s controversial Pulp cover came out, the s***storm on Twitter was an all-day affair that revealed internalized misogyny, “receipt-showing,” and bad apologies.

In this age of social media activism, caring in private is no good; you have to publicize it. You can get dragged for deigning to stay quiet.

It’s overwhelming. I still haven’t publicly said anything about Ghost in the Shell, because for one thing it feels like everything’s been covered already, and in ways far more eloquent than I can attempt. For another, having seen neither the original anime nor the recently released movie, I don’t feel equipped to, as Pepsi vaguely urges us, “join the conversation.” But despite recognition of these constraints, I can’t say the temptation to weigh in isn’t there — to elbow my way to the heart of the discussion, throw in the word “problematic,” then move on to the next infuriating thing.

Taking part in collective outrage is inherently tempting. What’s more, opting out can be interpreted as confirmation of one’s incapacity to engage in thoughtful conversation. When your entire feed is talking about something you should care about, like misogynistic sound bites from a politician’s latest press conference, to talk about anything that isn’t in the same territory of topical and f-ed up makes you look insensitive at best and shallow at worse. In this age of social media activism, caring in private is no good; you have to publicize it. You can get dragged for deigning to stay quiet. Your silence, even when temporary, speaks for you. And it says: I’m out of touch. I don’t even care enough to comment. So it’s almost an obligation to talk, even when an issue needs a little bit more research to fully parse, when an opinion requires some private rumination to substantially communicate, when information on breaking news is still being pieced together.

The pressure is always on. No one wants to risk their “woke” status.

Sometimes we can relieve it by simply rephrasing what everyone on our timelines is already saying. When we haven’t taken the time to think about what we think (it’s a lot of thinking), we may opt to take the opinion that most people seem to agree with, dress it up in a way that’s more “us,” then regurgitate it for the audience that exists in our echo chamber so they can praise us for thinking just like them. So it goes. Mission accomplished.

Your silence, even when temporary, speaks for you.

Eventually everything becomes indistinguishable from white noise, because we’re all too busy scrambling to give our hot take on a topical issue to notice that we didn’t need to say it anymore. What we lacked was the humility to admit that maybe we didn’t need to weigh in, not about this or that. We let ourselves be lured, once again, by the fiery glow of online outrage.

Points for participation, right?

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I don’t mean that everyone who participates in this hyper-responsive culture is doing it for the likes, to put on airs. Sometimes you really can be that quick on the uptake, no pausing necessary. Sometimes you just have to say something, you know? More power to you.

I’m talking specifically about my own occasional tendency, my personal observations of people who posture inconsistent “woke-ness.” I’m talking about how the responsibility I feel not to speak superfluously in a space that’s already teeming with opinions sometimes conflicts with the pressure to speak or forever hold my piece. Maybe you can relate. It’s something to think about.

The pressure is always on. No one wants to risk their “woke” status.

When we share our thoughts on anything because we’re propelled by the pressure to appear knowledgeable or morally upright rather than a genuine desire to engage and learn, it hurts our capacity to contribute something of substance to any conversation. We prevent ourselves from further investigating our values outside of the social media microscope. All that posturing distracts us from actually listening and understanding. We get a little bit shy, a little bit dishonest with ourselves, and a little bit dishonest with others, as a result. When we say “f*** it” and comment without doing the necessary reading, without closely examining our position, without considering if we simply speak for the sake of speaking — we miss a golden opportunity for introspection.

Not all lessons are learned in dialogue. Giving ourselves the time to nurse our outrage, to let our ideas marinate, to listen to the discussions happening without us: that could also help us learn a thing or two. Abstaining from knee-jerk reacting to every new piece of information, big or small, gives us time to think about why we feel so personally slighted by cultural appropriation or industry-specific sexism or that goddamn Kendall Jenner ad. Pacing ourselves when it comes to participating in online outrage might help us further develop our empathy, our own worldview, our capacity to see the logic in other people’s dissenting stance. There is value in waiting.

We just need to learn to be okay with silence, whatever it might say about us.


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