Angst abounds as people tweet during tragedy

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2013 - 3:34 PM

During times of national heartache, Twitter and Facebook become sounding boards for the grieving masses. But what if you want to tweet about something else?

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A child stands in front of a house and vehicle that were destroyed by a massive tornado in Moore, Okla., May 24, 2013. During times of national tragedy, Twitter and Facebook become sounding boards for the grieving masses.

Photo: Eric Thayer, New York Times

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When tragedy grips the nation — tornadoes in Oklahoma, a bombing in Boston, a school massacre — the banal conversation on Twitter and Facebook morphs instantly.

People post news and photos of the victims. Many tweet condolences. Others fall silent. It’s like a very public, very noisy memorial service.

At the same time, some still stick to sharing cat videos, which offends some mourners.

This confusing collision of conversations is raising questions about the emerging etiquette of tweeting during tragedy. What is appropriate? What if you don’t tweet anything at all? Does that signal you don’t care?

It’s a dilemma giving some Twitter users pause. Marina Maric of Minneapolis has been tweeting since 2006, yet she still wonders what to say when catastrophe overwhelms her feed. Before she knew that an F-5 tornado had ripped through Moore, Okla., on May 20, she posted a joking tweet about her hotel in Portland. But when she read about the disaster, she worried that her previous tweet might have seemed flippant.

Soon, she posted: “I was up in the air all day ... catching up on the news from Oklahoma just now. How sad.”

The sentiment was genuine, she said, but also an attempt to comply with this evolving etiquette.

“I did at some point think, ‘People are going to think I’m insensitive,’ ” Maric said. “I needed to acknowledge to the world that I knew something had happened.”

She had good reason to be worried.

Heightened reactions

Backlash from the public has made it clear that businesses and brands should quiet their social media marketing after tragedy, experts say.

American Apparel’s “Hurricane Sandy Sale” drew intense criticism. So did a tweet by Kenneth Cole, joking that the uproar in Cairo during Arab Spring must’ve been related to the release of the brand’s spring collection. Social media users pounced on foodie website Epicurious for tweeting a recipe for whole-grain cranberry scones “in honor of Boston and New England” after the marathon bombing.

“If you’re selling candy or clothes or something like that and you’re trying to weave something in, that’s not the appropriate time,” said Joel Carlson, owner of social media consulting firm Sociability.

But what’s the average person to do when Twitter or Facebook is overwhelmed by sorrow?

“There’s a simple solution to this: What would you do in real life?” said Lisa Grimm, of digital advertising agency Space150 in Minneapolis.

The online conversation, while a great outlet for people who want to connect with others after tragedy, exemplifies the different ways people deal with grief, said Jennifer Baker Jones, a psychologist with the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition in St. Paul.

“People have their own rules,” she said. “Not everyone’s comfortable saying what they feel, even if it’s a condolence posted on Facebook.”

Karl Pearson-Cater of Minneapolis said it can be tricky to mix heavy emotions with the everyday levity of social media, especially Twitter.

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  • The deadly tornado that struck near Oklahoma City late last week was 2.6 miles wide, the widest ever recorded. Once the news spread, many tweeters that day moderated their posts in light of the tragedy.

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