Debbie Downer Has a Facebook Problem: Regulating Affect on Social Media Networks
Hollis Griffin/Colby College
A few months ago, I split with my partner of nearly twelve years. As is so typical where “matters of the heart” are concerned, it was a long time coming and, somehow, cripplingly sudden. I am primarily in touch with friends through Facebook, but it seemed tacky and nauseatingly self-important to make some public announcement about my relationship there. We’re not Brangelina, after all. Even so, how does one act? What does one tell people? When is it “okay” to reveal anything so personal, and via what means? To say that I was/am hurting about the end of the relationship is a vast understatement. The very notion that I’d be worried about managing appearances on Facebook is almost laughable. Yet telling mutual friends and working through my own feelings has been a thoroughly mediated affair, ripe with anxieties about “what people will think” and “what’s protocol.”
Friends told me that divvying up our pictures would be a difficult task. But we couldn’t split things that are so firmly in the public domain—we’d posted many of them to Facebook all along. In the last few months, I’ve scrolled through them over and over. Images of us in happier times bring on the tears, of course: snapshots of dinner parties and vacations, mushy pictures taken while kissing on the beach. Eric Freedman charts the movement of “private” portraiture across “public” networks; using trauma theory, he discusses snapshots rendered as digital images and then circulated on television and the internet. Looking at my photo albums on Facebook was akin to pouring salt in a wound. As such, I’ve thought seriously about taking the pictures down off the network. (Though who knows if they ever really disappear.) I know that I’ll be compelled to look at them again. But what am I even looking at if/when I do that? As Lacan points out, that which escapes representation “never ceases to write itself.” The connection I had with my former partner isn’t reducible to photos on the internet. In that sense, taking them down doesn’t matter much. It wouldn’t change anything—you can’t erase history. A year from now, would I even want to?
Yet, the pictures are painful precisely because they’re ostensibly private and I made them public. Now, my feelings about the photos are infinitely different than when I first posted them. People like to share happiness, but sadness that’s viewable to others isn’t necessarily knowable by others. Sharing sadness and rage is harder. Before writing this piece, I tried very hard to be private about feeling sad. On social media networks, the affects attending aloneness—sadness, grief—are surveilled; their temporality and duration are sites of considerable policing. Posting a link to Facebook in the middle of the night, whether it’s a syrupy movie clip or a depressing music video, suggests much about the user’s affective state. Repeated posts about feeling mad or gloomy frequently precipitate off-network emails and private messages. “What’s his problem?” Bad feelings are monitored differently than good ones: you can’t have them at certain times, and you certainly can’t have them all of the time.
I am grateful that the vast majority of my friends have been kind and supportive, but I am still acutely aware of how bad feelings operate. No one wants to contend with “Debbie Downer” (notice the pejorative, gendered implications). This is true even when, as it is in my case, a negative affective state is wholly justified. Writing about social media, Jodi Dean states: affect “accrues from communication for its own sake, from the endless circular movement of commenting, adding notes and links, bringing in new friends and followers, layering and interconnecting myriad communications platforms and devices.”1 I see these movements as being different for positive and negative affects. They change the ways in which people understand their connections to others. There are friends with whom one is closer, more intimate than others precisely because their affective states mesh better, more frequently. Further, the ways that “friends and followers” become attached to networks vary because “affective links are stronger than hypertextual ones… Intense feeling accompanies and reinforces code.”2 Affective charges push and pull in different directions across networks. Even if Facebook reduces all connections to, merely, “friends,” the platform’s “hiding” and list functions provide evidence of how these connections can shift and morph with each bit posted and shared. “Debbie Downers” get hidden from their friends’ Facebook feeds, shunted off to a list where they’re always absent from view—or, worst of all, defriended entirely.
If the affects shared on and circulated via social media can be relatively inchoate, the social regulation of those affects is anything but. The ways that feelings accrete and are coded culturally dovetail with particular ideas about social mores, cementing into how individuals signify to others. When romantic relationships end, good feelings are typically “okay” to share. That’s less the case with bad feelings. I’ve been loathe to say/post/do anything on Facebook that would hint at the epically bad feelings I had about the end of my relationship. No matter that we’re both good people, and no matter that neither of us wants to hurt the other, we’ve had a tremendously difficult time dealing with the public/private nature of breaking up. Anybody would. Offering my conflicted feelings—anger, despair, shock—up for even the semi-public consumption of Facebook feels unspeakably terrible. He deserves better than a public airing of our dirty laundry. And while I’m suspicious of how bad feelings are judged, weighed, and discussed, any unfiltered venting would hurt more than it would help, in many different ways. It’d be a major social faux pas, but it would also probably just make me feel worse.
Lauren Berlant writes that on Facebook “people are trying there to eventalize the mood, the inclination, the thing that just happened—the episodic nature of existence… It’s not in the idiom of the great encounter or the great passion, it’s the lightness and play of the poke.”3 Insofar as my now defunct relationship was, actually a “great encounter,” a “great passion,” I’m far more comfortable using Facebook for “lightness and play.” I typically share and post things that I think are funny, crazy, stupid: news stories about Jersey Shore, coverage of Sarah Palin’s bus tour. The feelings I’ve been experiencing about my relationship are too awful to encapsulate in a link, picture, or status update. Historically, I’m an unrepentant “heart on the sleeve” guy. I have profound misgivings about being this way now. This is not just because it’s embarrassing, and is not just because I’m worried about what people will say or think. (Even though it is and I am.) It’s more that if I were to be emotionally honest and share just how bad I feel, those feelings might take over. I think affects have “states” because I hold out hope that feeling bad doesn’t have to last forever, even if it sometimes feels like it will.
In critical theory circles, there is much talk of an “affective turn,” a preponderance of research conducted on questions of feeling and emotion. Anger, regret, pain create all kinds of knowledge—about the self and the world, about political structures and oppressed minorities, about modes of critique and historical inquiry. That fine line between feeling bad as an overwhelming, disorienting phenomenon, and feeling bad as a potentially transformative, reparative force is porous and discontinuous. Above all else, it’s difficult and confusing. Needless to say, that’s my terrain these days. I’m lucky in that my friends and family have been wonderfully attentive via more private media: phone calls, text messages, e-mails. I hope that “oversharing” here (and, notably, not Facebook—this contradiction isn’t lost on me) sheds at least a little light on the felt dimensions of a “mediated self,” the self one communicates to others via various media technologies. A “mediated self” involves affective contradictions that swing between what “should” remain personal and which feelings are “okay” to be shared. Such a hinge pivots on well-established though never uncontested ideas about bodies and desires, knowledge and power. Navigating that online demarcation of public and private is especially bewildering when you just want everyone, everywhere to know: I hurt, and I wish I didn’t.
1.When is it Okay to Reveal Personal Events on Public Social Networks?
2.On Social Media Networks Affects are Surveilled
3.Some Feelings are too Awful to Encapsulate with a Status Update
4.Emotions Create Knowledge About the Mediated Self
Please feel free to comment.
A. __________ thinks Proposition 8 has no business circulating because it is immoral.
B. __________’s baby just burped for the third time today.
C. __________ just got her third promotion in as many weeks.
D. ___________ is in pain, and has no idea what to do with it.
These are 4 categories I see in various manifestations as status updates, and all of them are in different though related ways transgressive, as they stretch or exceed affective protocols of facebook. We could speak of these, in the parlance of FB, as evidence of improper or insufficient filters. The first not filtering out the political from the personal; the second not filtering either the micro-quotidian from the quotidian or the hyper-familial from the social; the third not filtering the immodest from more moderate reports of personal progress/achievement; the last (the most transgressive) not filtering the abject/too personal/too confessional from the properly channeled mode of self-confession or self-reportage.
These mandates (evidence, as you have stated, is present in collective censure or backstabbing, “Boy, did he overshare!”) almost align with Biblical exhortations like the Deadly Sins: a. wrath, b. gluttony, c. pride, 4. sloth. Some of these are interchangeable, but the impulses are the same. Interestingly, the prohibitions or at least judgments surrounding these improper modes of confession center as much on the affective states that are often evoked in the reader from such statements, as much as the ones that the writer seems to be sharing about herself.
The last one, I feel much in sympathy with. I have written one too many myself, which I am now calling the “ten-foot pole” posts. I think these expressions of angst, of the need for emotional sanctuary or sharing in grief, are the most taboo because of their connections to privatized, therapeutic discourse, and because they call the reader to their (supposedly) empathetic and healer-intimate selves in a public forum where they are becoming a documented part of a discourse of vulnerability and pathology. Offering advice, condolences, or giving a public validation of the grieving process is like shame; it is infectious, permeable, starts to implicate the addressee as much as they analysand.
Thanks for writing this. It has given me a lot to think about.
I too have been contemplating these very questions as I find myself increasingly sucked into the virtual social worlds created and enabled by both Facebook and Twitter. Like you, I have been wary of posting anything that hits too close to the reality of my personal emotions (such as when I’m feeling enraged or depressed), but I seem to have no problem documenting the minutiae of my daily life. I find myself “eventalizing” my life and (much to some of my friends’ annoyance, I am sure), the lives of my children. But even in documenting such trivial things as my son pooping in the bathtub or my daughter’s dance recital, I often pause to wonder if I am “oversharing” and what kind of “mediated self” I am creating. Is this the person I am? Is this person I want to project into the world? This is a new problem, and one which will only get more complicated over time.
So thank you for giving me more to think about in this regard and thanks for sharing a piece of the personal in this otherwise public and emotionally distanced space.
You say that you want to shed “a little light on the felt dimensions of a ‘mediated self’.” I think you do, and Amanda is right that the matter of constructing a Facebook persona is only as old as Facebook. But, as a Facebook user, I’m not sure I like the identity you give me here. If I use my own Facebook experience as normative, too, I can’t say that I share your sense of the inappropriateness of sharing unfortunate news. I certainly do not want all the posts I read to imply a world of happy automata. What sort of person would?
We should not lay the fact that we cannot know another’s pain—a perennial philosophical case for considering skepticism—at the door of new technologies. That is, my concern is that you treat Facebook as a straw man for the difficulty of self-presentation in general, especially when extreme emotions grip us and we struggle to maintain a typical performance of everyday life. For example, it’s unclear to me that Facebook has actually transformed people’s attitudes toward “Debbie Downers.” We wouldn’t want them at our table at lunch either, right? (Also, the epithet doesn’t apply to someone going through a particular grieving period, such as yourself.) I have emailed you when your posts suggested that you were upset and I have emailed you when your posts suggested that you were ecstatic. I would like to think that I would offer similarly appropriate reactions in person, but I would not like to think that such responses would constitute my surveilling you. Similarly, you worry about the “social faux pas” of “airing dirty laundry” or bad-mouthing your ex, but again, this is not Facebook-specific. Oughtn’t people worry about that sort of behavior anywhere?
As far as “negative” emotions go, surely we don’t think people should be elated all the time, right? That’s called mania. So, why would be want our friends to behave like they are? Are we asking them to dissemble in order not to bother us? Uniform cheerfulness all the time is boring, and boring does bother me. If “bad feelings are monitored differently than good ones” (and I’m not convinced they are), then it may be because they are more interesting. That is why I enjoy your posts, Amanda: poop in the bath is interesting. Someone telling me that her dinner was delicious is not. The issue here, it seems to me, is that when you post, your message hits a broader audience than you might wish. But one posts anyway so as to communicate with certain people. This is not related to “positive” or “negative” emotions—and, while I’m at it, should we moralize emotions so? I realize, of course, that you didn’t coin these phrases, Hollis, but, as a humanist, I resist such scientific taxonomies. I hesitate to reinforce the repression, pharmaceutical erasure, fear, and shame that subtends labeling particular kinds of emotions “negative.”
It seems to me that the question is who is made uncomfortable by perfectly human, reasoned emotions; who gets access to what kinds of affect? I have much more of a problem with people who post movie spoilers or tell me about their new cardigan. Besides, the real Debbie Downers are the ones who express facts, not emotions, about the Bush tax cuts, Mel Gibson, and Sarah Palin.
Thanks for all of these great comments!
As Casey points out, the “Debbie Downer” sharing is but one of the many affective claims made on Facebook that break with protocols re: emotions in the public sphere. In that sense, braggadocio, navel-gazing, self-satisfied-ness are equally irksome from a sociality standpoint. As Amanda points out, I’m talking about the extent to which Facebook and the rest of the social media stuff act as technologies of the self, where we internalize social protocols, try to navigate them accordingly, hope to not offend. To this end, Kyle, it’s more that Facebook LEAVES TRACES of things that are already occurring elsewhere — and have been long before Generation Cellphone. I think that’s what’s *kind of* different. If only because when one says something grating at a cocktail party, the words disappear, it circulates as hear-say and gossip, etc. But on Facebook, until it’s deleted or hidden or whatever, it lingers as evidence with a different kind of duration and temporality……
It IS, however, good to underscore that “the media have always been social”, long before self-referential Tweeting. Which is to say: every technology, whether it’s a smartphone or a stone tablet and chisel, is bound up in sociocultural conventions and interpersonal expectations. Given my “recent events,” I do think it’s kinda unfortunate that one feels impelled to control emotions — often at precisely those moments when they feel massively bad and unwieldy……
Perhaps I should mention that I know Hollis, though this is the first time I’ve learned of his changing relationship situation. And maybe this is how I only now learned since I don’t do Facebook or Twitter. [OK, I know that offends some people, but I have two reasons. One, pragmatic: no one has ever explained to me how either would improve my life. (If you can, contact me off this blog.) Two: I don’t trust their privacy policies and practices, and I want to control my personal data.]
Based on my own experience of divorce, many years ago, I could recognize the shock and grief reactions and the need to process it all over time. But the idea of not getting rid of the Facebook images made me wonder what other folks do/have done. I remember my mother once remarking after both I and one of my siblings divorced, that in the future it would be a good idea to pose wedding photos in such a way that ex’s could be easily excised from the pictures at a later date. I’ve seen this happen in family albums in my extended family, and even observed re-editing of home movies to liquidate the now-hated spouse. Thanks for Photoshop!
It does seem to me to be likely to finally hit the Delete button when you start a new serious relation, Hollis. And to expect the same removal of old baggage from your new partner. (I suspect that shared custody might complicate things for those with that arrangement.)
Thanks, Hollis, for such a great post. Your meditation on the ways in which we regulate our emotions for Facebook , and Casey’s stunningly accurate multiple choice categorization, made realize that I refuse to post strong feelings in either direction on the site. Meaning , there’s no agony, and no ecstasy on my FB page. Added to that, I am so wary of turning into a Facebook bore or a braggadocio (either B or C on Casey’s schema) that I engage in a check and balance system purely of my own making, i.e., to temper the occasional bouts of self-promotion or happiness (an article I’ve written, a detail about my upcoming wedding) I temper these with bad things. The disappointments/downfalls are also all true, mind you (my car really did get towed by the Boston police!) but even that detail was rather calculatingly revealed. So, I would add to your post that while I completely agree about the fear of sharing what’s really painful, I suspect that these acts of affective regulation have a relationship to puritanical notions of citizenship, whereby middle of the range emotions/experiences are the least “offensive” so to speak, and hence the most willingly shared.
Thanks for all of the comments. The regulation of affect is, as Suzanne points out, inherent in ideas about citizenship. While there have been trials and tribulations rel’d to proper comportment since the beginning of time, it seems as though there is something at least a LITTLE historically specific about this one. And I’m not thinking just in terms of the technology (Kyle would likely slap me on the wrist for such ahistorical tomfoolery), but in terms of labor in the neoliberal context. Which is to say: in an economic context wherein workers increasingly labor apart from the kinds of collectivity that have shaped work in other historical moments (agrarian families, labor unions), not going stir-crazy while on the job lends itself to particular kinds of self-disclosure. What these look like are shaped by social mores that are in flux, contested, and so on, but point to ideas about “proper comportment” that suggest a “technology of the self” to such a large extent that it’s no more subtle than a freight train….. I sit in front of the computer all day long, often from home — as do many, many others. I think that’s why Facebook feels so zeitgeisty. The traffic there — and the affects that circulate as a result — are enabled by certain conditions of regulation and capital.
Which brings me to what Chuck writes — is removing the pictures beside the point, on some level? Did your family take down the pictures because it made them more comfortable? I ask these things because if “the subject never ceases to write himself,” it should follow that the traces left will transcend the mere posting of old pictures. I think it would be one thing if i were to RECIRCULATE them, enter them into a different flow of temporality, etc. As in, “this is who I was then.” It raises questions re: “well who am I now?” Which is why things like this, with a new partner, become so very fraught, I think………
I feel like this is a common issue amongst the general public. My friend’s list personally has either one or the other; people who post their life stories, and people who rarely put anything personal. I do agree that when I read the statuses consistent of breakup issues I get annoyed and find myself wondering why people post all of their emotions on a social network. Then again, why should I care what you like to post on your own page right? Seems a bit odd for me to get so flustered, as if your feelings are an inconvenience on my news feed. It’s almost cynical of me, which is not a good thing. Now that you have made me aware, my actions are not something to be proud of. I notice the majority of my friends as well when we are on any social networks are looking for videos that will make us laugh, and quick short messages or anything that is straight to the point. Also, I am not sure how old you are, but with teenagers especially it seems a bit more popular to be nosey and commonly check each other’s Facebook statuses. I have a sister who is 17 and as sick as it is, a lot of her peers almost root for the other to fail. Therefore, it is hard today to find someone that is genuine about another’s feelings. You also said that a lot of posting your own emotions has to do with fear of those emotions taking over. As a viewer, I think that is pretty accurate. Even reading someone else’s feelings that could be similar to an issue I am having myself could mean my own emotions could then in turn, “take over.”
I also think this could be looked at from another perspective. It is interesting that when the public is not offered the information the desire to know the details becomes more important. For instance, if you had previously had “in a relationship with Sue Smith” and then just simply changed your relationship status to “single” several people would wonder what happened and would most likely comment and ask up front why the two of you broke up. Where as, if you had wrote your heart out in a status letting everyone know what happened to you, they simply wouldn’t care; unless their feelings towards you as a friend were genuine. People commonly get uncomfortable when too much information is offered and not asked. Even though they would ask if you had not offered it. Which is completely backwards. Individually we are comfortable repressing our emotions and are completely uncomfortable witnessing somebody else’s emotional roller coaster. Just seems interesting that one is so easily judged for the content of their social networks.
If you think about it too, twitter and instagram both are used for “right now” information. People commonly post pictures of their food and things that have just happened to them. There are twitter confrontations all the time that is extremely entertaining; but the second they become too emotional, or at the point where it is just worn out, it becomes annoying. So I’d rather look at what people are eating, and the stupid videos people make about absolutely nothing, rather than care about a person who is going through a hard time. It seems messed up on so many levels.
There are privacy settings now that allow you to monitor who sees what content of your profile; but I understand you feel as if you shouldn’t need to monitor it at all, and if you don’t the common question if it will ever go away is in the air.
Initially my views on social media are that people post things for certain kinds of attention. One posts positive things in order to either brag or bring on praise from their friends, specifically the point of the “like” button. People post things that other people would like in order to garner some type of recognition or validation that what they are doing is good and they are a good person. Then your experience shines a different anxiety about what types of posts are appropriate when they are clearly not positive. People on their social media sites like to portray themselves, their lives devoid of pain, anger or sadness but the downfall of having a life online and sharing personal things, these emotions tend to be exposed and this then warrants certain anxieties, like the ones you describe. One may worry about how she is perceived once this hurt begins to come up to the surface and people realize that she is not perpetually happy and good things do not always happen. We see these moments of pain and hurt as weakness, or perceived weakness by others, yet we strive for the connection with someone else to show that they care. In the time of hurt and anguish, we can crave attention just to feel like we are not alone, and so our lives online expand past the mere egotism to compassion.
However, like you point out no one wants to have a “Debbie Downer” filling up their feed with constant posts of their problems. I think most people would perceive this as attempts to garner sympathy and thusly dismiss it or even ridicule it. And this is where your anxiety lies. No one wants to be seen in their most fragile states to be judged by hundreds of their friends all at once. Therefore, we usually stay light and playful, as you suggest, on our online spaces and reserve real emotion for more intimate, private interactions, which I believe is appropriate. In an online society we must recognize things a better served to stay private, and this is mostly for our own sake. Becoming emotionally exposed online is scary so we would be better off not being so personal in our online interactions.
Just like the author of this article countless facebook users have gone through the regret and humiliation of excessive personal posting. Beginning first as a user-friendly bulletin board and ultimately transforming into an obsessed life invaded diary many of us have learned from those past mistakes; by crafting a care-free, happy going persona that will keep our image affective towards our followers (friends). With the ability to self-regulate ones domain daily; whether its facebook, twitter, instagram or any other social media, the outlet becomes an obscure representation of individual life on the interweb. This leads to the issue of inexperienced users adhering to this model. The internet was created to break free of the regulated mediums in today’s world but with users regulating themselves the same way a film or television channel might, represents just how much we conform to societal pressures. Since many of us users regulate our representation online (which is totally fine, for private reasons) followers and viewers alike should take the time to critically analyze the networking sites they subscribe too before they too are sucked into the manufacturing lifestyles present online. As the author said images and posts online are read and consumed differently due to the persons relationship to that certain object so if it something personal I hope the user takes his/her self into consideration before it’s there forever.
There are two answers to your question, “Is it okay to reveal personal events on social media?” and one answer is: yes, as long as they are about positive events in your life. When you are happy, all your friends are happy for you. No one wants to read a depressing post on Facebook. Why else would they have a “Like” button?
Going through a break up can be difficult especially nowadays when social media has become a part of our everyday lives. The dilemma of the break up ritual is to decide whether you should go through your Facebook and delete your photos, unfriend the person and anyone associated with them or you tell the whole world your sad, sad news. However, you do not need to lose the pictures you have together if you don’t want to. You do have the option to make those pictures only viewable to you.
Let’s agree that most of your ‘friends’ on Facebook are mere acquaintances, not really friends. They don’t want to hear your sad/depressing news. So your instincts are correct, you should not post the depressing details of the break up or the reason why it ended on Facebook. Those who are close to you, are the only ones who matter, and they already know all the details and the rest are just “Facebook Friends”.
So between the two options you should choose to delete the evidence of your relationship, unfriend them and anyone else that is associated with your ‘ex’ and do not let the world know how bad you feel.
Love may not last forever, but things you post on the internet do.
Facebook is a place of social media, where people can connect and share with one another across the world. Sharing is the main focus of Facebook. It is to share your likes and dislikes, as well has your life. The Update Status bar is a perfect example of this; “What’s on your mind?” All people look at this question in different ways. Some may view it as in sharing what is literally on their minds at the moment, good or bad. Others choose to post events that happen in their lives or things they like or dislike. Either way of sharing is a way of trying to connect with the outside old. I believe people share their life’s so willingly because they can find those who deal with similar problems or successes. It makes them feel better to know that they are not the only ones going through struggles, in the case of the negative posts. In the article it states that it is alright to post positive feelings, but often not negative ones. I personally do not agree with this. My view on that particular subject is that it is alright to post negative issues or feelings in one’s life, but only to a certain extent.
I personally post my inner feelings on a regular bases. But when I do this I have a critical eye. I am very selective on the words I use and how much detail, about my problems, I am willing to put out there. Why do I do this? Why do I post my problems for everyone one to see and judge against? I can honestly answer that question with an; “I don’t know.” Maybe I’m like everyone else, I seek sympathy when something goes wrong, appraisal when something goes right and attention. Or maybe it is subconsciously. It is like when some people don’t think before they talk. Maybe that is what people do, vent out online and don’t really think about what they are posting until it is too late. Essentially letting their emotions get the better of them.
There are times when it is not right to post such negative posts. This is when it is potentially harmful to oneself or another person. But if it’s venting that may seek help or guidance, posting it online for your friends to view may help. There is either a chance of your friends aiding to help you with your situation or you have those who will judge you. This is why it is important about how much you post, and if it is too much. It’s alright to vent out frustrations once in a while. But should someone post it? Not necessarily… It is very similar to writing a note or composing an email of anger towards another. It helps to write it out, but that doesn’t mean you should send it because it can cause unwanted problems or escalate things. This is what happens on social media networks.
Overall, this is why when venting on Facebook or any other social media network that you must be careful about what you put. Don’t give out too much information. Like I have stated before, I have vented myself. However I do not give out details and my posts turn out to be general questions or quotes rather than details on my personal life. I recommend for those that want to express themselves and their problems (which is perfectly understandable and should not be judged), maybe posting a quote that sums up what you are feeling is a safer route. This is what I do on a regular basis. It is alright to post negative things as long as one doesn’t go too far. It is better to vent and let it all out, then to keep it all in and let it consume you.