Facebook and the Semi-Public Tragedy

By now, I’m sure that you’re aware of the concept of the “Facebook-only” friend. For most people, it could probably be defined as someone who would probably drive you crazy if they were currently in your life (and vice versa), but whom you’re still curious about.

They’re often people you used to hang around with 10, 20, 30 years ago, but of whom you’ve lost track over the years, only to be reunited virtually, with occasional vague promises to “have a beer together” some time.

Either that, or they are people with whom you’ve had discussions with in other online places, and you’ve somehow also ended up as Facebook friends.

The upshot is that — if you use Facebook a lot — your circle of Facebook-only Friends probably dwarfs your circle of Real Life Friends. And because your only glimpse into these people’s lives on a day-to-day basis is via their status updates, it has given rise to a phenomenon that I call “The Semi-Public Tragedy.”

The Semi-Public Tragedy is when you can tell from somebody’s status updates that something awful has recently happened in their lives, but because you’re not that close to them in Real Life, you don’t know exactly what the hell it was. So the tragedy is out there, but it’s not like you’re seeing it on the news.

Because there is sharing and there is oversharing, depending on the degree of the tragedy, your Facebook-only Friend often doesn’t post directly about it, but rather posts around it.

Please note that status updates about the Semi-Public tragedy are markedly different from posts by the perpetual whingers: it’s usually centered on an specific life-changing incident, as opposed the kind of chronic issue that some of your Facebook-only Friends go on so much about you wish that they would have a life-changing incident.

No matter what the tragedy, one thing is certain: the commenters know a helluva lot more than you do. Which is why they’re often dancing around the subject, offering support, love and hugs — always plenty and plenty of virtual hug– but only offering the slightest glimpses into what went on. Which makes sense: nobody wants to fully out the person going through the tragedy to dozens or even hundreds of people who would otherwise have not a clue to what was happening.

After extensive (OK, extensive-ish) research, I’ve identified four major types of Semi-Public Tragedy:

  • The Break-up. This one is often the easiest to figure out: either someone will change their romantic status to “Single” (which used to be accompanied by a broken heart icon — nice job there, designers!), or your friend might even discuss it.

    However, the why as to the relationship ended is always left unsaid. Which is fine, since it’s not really anybody’s business but the couple, and maybe their closest friends. And guess what, you aren’t one of those.

  • Crime. Once again, the exact nature of the crime isn’t usually explained, but instead, you’ll see an update like, “I’m really grateful for professionalism of the members of the Pennsylvania State Police.” And the commenters will often volunteer to put the person up at their place or let them borrow a car.
  • Medical Procedure or Emergency This might be the most common. If it’s some kind of planned procedure, there will be countdowns, vague references to nervousness about going under the knife. After the procedure, you’ll read updates about either the difficulty of recovery, or how much faster your Facebook-only Friend has recovered from the mystery procedure compared to what the Doctor predicted.

    Noone ever recovers at exactly the rate that they were supposed to. Boring!

    An actual emergency is even trickier: by definition all of the posts are completely about the aftermath. So there will be thanks to doctors, thanks to family members, obscure references to various tubes going in and out of the body, but never complete description of what the emergency was all about. And that’s probably just as well. You really don’t want to know, do you?

    Unless, of course, it’s a child: people seem to have no problem describing in great detail what is going on in their children’s lives, and the medical emergency is no exception. In fact, it’s almost a requirement.

  • Death. The big one. Especially unexpected death. For the most part, you won’t much more than a name, and maybe the relationship to your friend. There will be updates about the service, memorials, maybe even a fund. However, unless you previously knew the person who died, it still won’t make a lot of sense. The commenters will be offering prayers, solace, comfort and love.

    You’ll want to, as well, but you’ll feel weird about doing it, because not only did you not really know the person who died, you don’t really know the person who is mourning.

The Semi-Public Tragedy has always existed: who hasn’t had a phone call or email about some awful thing that happened to a person that they used to know? Or picked up the paper and seen an obituary that took them by surprise? It’s just now, we have instant access to those things instead of hearing them through the grapevine.

And I would argue that is was makes the Semi-Public Tragedy a unique thing to Facebook: in the past, our friends and family radiated from us in concentric circles, and the grapevine or random encounters was the only way we ever found out any new information about those in the outer orbits. It was the difference between the time it took for the Sun’s light to get to Mercury and the time it took for it to get to Pluto.

But now, thanks to Facebook, we have instant access to things that would have otherwise take much further to get to us. We just don’t have access to that much more information about those things. That’s one of the weird consequences of social networks: they’ve turned people who would have remained remained virtual strangers into virtual friends. And yet, for the most part, still only virtual.

3 Responses to “Facebook and the Semi-Public Tragedy”

  1. Drea says:

    i just realized that i am guilty of the semi-public tragedy. my instinct has been to not be very specific about my own crisis. There are two reasons i can think of: 1. i don’t want to sound like a whiner and 2. because i don’t want to be in anyone’s face about something they may not really want to know about. but, now you’ve made me see that the mystery is perhaps just as annoying as too much information. hmmm.

  2. Morgan says:

    great job, Jim. We should get a beer sometime!

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