I recently lost my mind.
Okay, I didn’t completely lose it—but you’d be forgiven for assuming I had, based on my online interactions.
A month of crisis at my kids’ school had left me utterly drained by the effort of organizing a coalition of concerned parents, and ended with me pulling one kid out of the school right away, and searching for a new school for the other. I was worried about my kids’ future, furious with the school’s board, and heartbroken for all the kids who would now have no place to go.
I would love to tell you that I put all my cares behind me the moment I opened my computer to catch up on the latest Facebook news or correspond with a friend. But no: I brought my emotionally fragile state with me. And since a lot of what I was posting online was related to this crisis—requests for new school options, outreach to homeschooling groups, venting about my ongoing frustration—my online interactions were doubly fraught.
The result? So. Much. Online. Conflict. I found a simpatico group of homeschoolers who I immediately alienated by plunging into the conversation without first listening and getting to know the community. I got into an fight with a friend who was a little too insistent in sharing her well-intentioned advice about our schooling situation, even after I’d indicated I needed to hear from folks with special needs kids like mine. I weighed in on online debates I’d normally ignore, taking the opportunity to vent my general rage by tearing a strip off someone who’d been a bit tone-deaf in a political post.
A few weeks into my digital bloodbath, I stopped to take stock of why, exactly, I was having so many online blow-ups. It wasn’t hard to find the answer: I was emotional and hyper-reactive, vulnerable to being hurt and quick to anger. Rather than experience all those uncomfortable feelings offline, I went online to vent the anger that covered them up, in what V. A Santosh and K. V Krishnankutty describe as “racket feeling”:
Racket feeling is a familiar emotion, learned and encouraged in childhood, experienced in many stressful situations and maladaptive as an adult means of problem solving…It can be any feeling like anger, hurt, guilt, scare, inadequate, righteous and even triumphant….There are families which give a childhood experience to their children by favouring one emotion to express and restricting the other. For example, there are families that discourage their little ones to be sad, but at the same time, encourage anger.
Those friends and professionals I was seeing offline would at the very least be able to detect my “racket feeling” from the rage that entered my voice as soon as I started talking about the kids’ school. If I was talking to someone with some level of emotional intelligence, they might even recognize the vulnerability behind the racket feeling: everything about how I was talking, from my body language to my tone of voice to my frequent tears, could convey my fragility. They knew to tread carefully in our phone calls and conversations, offering their help and insights with tenderness and sensitivity.
Online, however, my emotional state was largely invisible. Sure, I might get a little extra leeway from someone who’d read the primal scream of a blog post that I wrote during my darkest hour. But for the average person who encountered me via email or Facebook, it was far from obvious that I was a mess. This is a widely recognized limitation of computer-mediated communication, as Kimberly A. Carter acknowledged in her 2003 article, “Type Me How You Feel”:
Nonverbal behavior plays a critical role in interpreting interpersonal interactions. Even those ever-so slight hand gestures, subtle facial expressions, almost indiscernible eye movements, minute changes in vocal tones, and quiet environmental cues transcend the mere spoken or written—and in this context, typed —word.
Putting It Into Words
In the absence of nonverbal cues, I had only language to convey my emotional state—and even that could betray me. Cowie speaks to the difficulty of articulating or parsing emotions online in his article, “Perceiving Emotion,” noting that when it comes to figuring out what someone’s emotional state is,
choosing appropriate words to describe emotions is often an important part of the process. It is a highly complex one, which is clearly dependent on culture, and involves judgements about causes, perceptions, justifications, entitlement and so on… It should no more be equated with the whole of emotion perception than colour naming is equated with colour perception.
I couldn’t count on people to perceive the emotions behind my online interactions. I couldn’t even count on myself to convey them accurately when I tried. What I wanted—what I needed—was a “handle with care” label: some immediate way of letting people know that I was in a vulnerable, volatile emotional state.
I recognize that some folks might suggest that it makes more sense to just stay offline when you’re feeling raw, but that isn’t always realistic. In my own case, the immediate need to sort out schooling options for my two kids (and to get emotional support for myself) meant that I couldn’t afford to cut myself off from online sources of support and knowledge.
And situations like mine crop up all the time. From break-ups to bereavements, and from health crises to job changes, life regularly shifts us into emotional overload. These are the very situations in which more and more people rely on the internet and social networks to get access to the resources, experts and friends they depend on. They’re also the situations in which we’re most likely to aggravate our own emotional states, not to mention inflicting pain on others, by getting into online conflicts.
Adopting a Common Protocol
So why not adopt a common protocol that lets our fellow internet citizens know when they are dealing with a hurting unit? It could be a virtual ribbon, or a filter that changes the color or pixelation of our social network photos. Think of this as the digital equivalent of wearing black when you’re in mourning, going out in your sweatpants when you’re mid-breakup, or leaving those dark circles under your eyes uncamouflaged so that people know that you’ve been tossing and turning with anxiety.
If you’re uneasy about the idea idea of wearing your emotional heart on your virtual sleeve, consider that the display of emotion is not only inevitable but also useful in our offline interactions. As Gerben A. Van Kleef et al. note in their article on the role of emotional display among business leaders,
Emotions have important social functions and consequences by which they influence not only the behaviour of those experiencing the emotions but also the behaviour of others. First, emotional displays often evoke affective reactions in others….Second, emotions are communications conveying information about how one feels about things, about one’s social intentions, and about one’s orientation toward other people. By carrying such information, emotional displays also serve as incentives or deterrents for other individuals’ behaviour. For instance, displays of anger may signal that behavioural adjustment is desired, whereas displays of happiness may encourage others to pursue their course of action.
Indeed, the display of emotion is so fundamental to our offline social functioning that we develop rituals designed to produce emotional display. In her riveting article on performative wailing as part of the mourning tradition among Yemenite Jews, Tova Gamliel notes the value that wailers place on moving mourners to tears:
Tears are an especially important indicator in the social situation and the wailing performance.They reflect the physical involvement that occurs when a subjective experience crosses a certain threshold. We regard tears as reliable evidence that people truly feel the emotion that they say they are feeling.
A “handle with care” protocol could provide the online equivalent to longstanding traditions like wailing: a social mechanism for eliciting explicit displays of emotion that ensure other people know we’re feeling raw. In an ideal world, that protocol would simply allow people to self-identify as emotionally vulnerable or volatile.
Can Algorithms Double as Therapists?
But let’s be honest, not everyone is great at recognizing their own emotional state. That’s where algorithms could come in handy—perhaps by recognizing patterns that suggest someone is likely in a fraught state (based on keywords or interaction patterns) and suggesting that they need to put on the “handle with care” flag. Actually applying that flag would be a step too far, since it could easily lead to systematically disempowering certain groups or categories of expression.
But prompting people to pop a ribbon or filter on their profile? That could be hugely helpful in averting needless friendship-ending arguments…and it’s certainly in keeping with a proud online tradition of filling in gaps in the “thin” context of online communications so it more closely resembles the rich, “thick” context of face-to-face conversation.
Indeed, Cowie’s article noted that the W3C (which oversees the protocols that make the internet work) had spawned an incubator group working on a standard called EmotionML that would allow web developers to embed emotional vocabulary in the content of a web page. The final 2014 report on EmotionML provides a picture of why a nuanced encoding of emotion has not exactly taken off: with twelve separate vocabularies for describing emotional states (including one based on Cowie’s own work), it’s arguably too nuanced to be widely useful.
But there’s a simpler example of how emotion signalling can work online, and like the “handle with care” concept, it emerged in direct response to the communicative limits of online communications.
Yes, I’m talking about emoticons. 😉 As Carter notes:
To help bridge this enormous gap between face-to-face nonverbal displays and textual-based correspondence, a steady stream of new words, ideas, and representations are added to the CMC language base everyday. For example, emoticons, typewritten symbols placed in messages, help writers to express themselves and also assist readers to better interpret the intended emotion. People increasingly use emoticons in e-mail, chat groups, and virtual realms, and convey a growing dependency on their translations.
As a now-familiar vocabulary, emoticons (or their more sophisticated successor, emoji) could let us convey that “handle with care” message if we used them in our profile photos. I’d love to see an emoji that specifically conveys fragility, but the broken heart 💔 can do for now. Until providers like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter allow us to put our profile photos in “fragile” mode, we can paste it into our profile photos ourselves.
And if this idea sounds crazy…well, just look at my Facebook profile for a signal of why you need to give me a little room right now.