I turned off Twitter when Mandela died because I had the choice of paying attention either to that or to NPR’s broadcast of Mandela talking about his life in clips from an old interview. It wasn’t about anyone’s individual response, but as a collective experience Twitter felt like people standing around at a funeral talking about themselves rather than the deceased, but pretending like they weren’t, if that makes any sense. Talking about the same things they always do but somehow making Mandela’s life into an argument in favor of it. Which is fine, it’s what Twitter is, but right then Old Media felt far more up to the task.
Then I came back to Twitter about three hours later and no one was talking about Mandela anymore. That’s what I was hoping for, but it still felt jarring. Maybe it’s because I shut Twitter off entirely and so didn’t witness the slow fallloff that always happens after a major news event, which is a more natural-feeling transition between Serious and Light. Instead, I went from All Mandela to Mandela Who? It seemed off, especially compared with the strength of the reaction when I dipped my toe in immediately after his death was announced. If we were all so affected, how could we so suddenly change the subject?
That’s not fair, of course, but it says something about the context. If this were school, we could go from talking about the Holocaust in a class to talking about our weekend plans in the hall without it seeming disrespectful. But that’s because there are barriers there. The conversation comes to a natural close, signaling that the subject has been concluded, and we walk through a door and out of the room. But the internet offers no such boundaries, which plays havoc with our social niceties. Because anyone can enter the “conversation” at any time, the natural progression we’re used to is effectively impossible. That reduction (not elimination! Never elimination!) of boundaries is one of the internet’s great strengths, of course, But it seems to me that we need to find ways to signal some boundaries anyway, because human activity doesn’t make much sense without divisions. (Imagine if Twitter could have sent out a system message around 5 PST like “OK, the Mandela discussion is over for North America and Asia, you can start talking about stupid shit again.”) An endless flow does not make sense when it comes to social life. That’s not to say online life never makes sense - when we find ways to cordon it off into private spaces, as with Gchat or email or DMs or whatever, it falls into familiar patterns. But in the online life we live entirely in public, social norms will have to develop ways to signal such boundaries even though they do not actually exist.