With all the venting, shaming, and just plain TMI, how can you be yourself without becoming that girl?
Let’s break it down: Facebook is like drinking at a bar in the town where you went to high school. Twitter is like wandering through Times Square listening to strangers mumble and shout. And Tumblr is like a slightly indiscriminate slumber party, all nail art and confessions. But put aside those crucial tonal and social differences and one thing is constant: somewhere, someone is suddenly, awkwardly expressing a lot of emotion right there in front of you and everyone else online. It might be a celebrity or someone you can’t even remember how you know. Or it might be you.
Everywhere you look, the carefully groomed images of the famous are giving way to uncomfortably raw ramblings, whether it’s Justin Bieber taking it to the haters on Instagram, Amanda Bynes imploring Drake to murder her vagina (she seems to have gotten it together since then), or Alec Baldwin … well, almost everything he’s tweeted could qualify as a meltdown. But now that we civilians have our own public images to maintain (usually without the aid of a paid publicist), policing personal boundaries has never been more urgent — or more treacherous.
Catzie Vilayphonh, a 33-year-old artist in Philadelphia, says she used to share more of her feelings online until she came to see those celebrities’ meltdowns as a cautionary tale. “It always bites them in the end,” she says. That didn’t stop many of her friends. “With people who use social media as their platform to vent, you’re sort of like, Oh my god, your life is a soap opera.”
One woman she barely knew took to Facebook to announce that (1) she was pregnant and (2) the father of her baby had slept with his ex-wife. She hinted that she was suicidal. “People were posting, ‘I don’t know you, but I’m sorry,'” Vilayphonh recalls. She sent a private message to reassure the woman that being a single mom wasn’t so bad. Later, the woman posted a plea for others to boycott her ex’s business, tagging Vilayphonh and others who’d expressed concern. Not long after, she posted that she was marrying the guy — making it awkward for those who’d jumped on her bandwagon against him.
Whether your social-media feeds are dominated by breaking celebrity gossip, political dramas, or friends’ drunken status updates, watching someone fall apart in real time presents a conundrum. Decades into the digital conversation, the internet is still in its emotional infancy. There are no set rules about (over)emoting online — so where do you draw the line when you post? And when someone else seems to cross a line, should you intervene, and if so, how?
“Facebook only has a Like button, and messy emotions or hardships — those things aren’t Likeable,” says Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist in New York City. With 802 million people logging onto Facebook daily (that number is only rising), it seems inevitable that messy emotions are going to be ever more present online. For lots of us, emoting IRL doesn’t offer the same kind of instant gratification — you can get a lot more sympathy when you vent to a massive, plugged-in network than when you talk to a friend face-to-face. Or maybe we feel as though the internet is all we have, because we’re far away from our real-life support system or because we never developed one. If anyone ever talked things out with their neighbor over the fence, in our fragmented world, it’s rarer than ever.
The problem with airing our frustrations online is that our social-media feeds knock down any walls we may have between family, friends, romantic partners, and work. You might vent about your ex to your best friend or about your boss to your mom, but what happens when you lose track of who hears what? You can’t always control, or even know, where your message goes. Let’s say the same 20 people usually comment on your posts. In that case, “it’s easy to feel like your social network is a closed community. You start to think it’s your group of friends and not public,” says Pamela Rutledge, PhD, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, in Corona del Mar, California. But of course, it is public, and even if you un-Friend the person you’re venting about, someone can screengrab to tip them off. Just because people aren’t commenting doesn’t mean they aren’t reading.
Yesenia Robles, a 25-year-old grad student in New York City, shakes her head at friends who’ve aired dirty laundry on Facebook. One posted the results of a paternity test, tagging the father and saying, “Told you you were the daddy.” Commenters encouraged the woman’s shenanigans. Another acquaintance posted court documentation that she changed her son’s last name from the father’s to her maiden name, aiming to embarrass her son’s father — she received backlash from commenters.
The peculiar phenomenon of the social media emotional meltdown is how I found myself writing to a friend — OK, a then fairly recent ex — “Please don’t hurt yourself!” after seeing alarming posts from him that suggested he may be suicidal. I wrote it without knowing how real the risk was or whether I was someone he even wanted to hear from at that moment. I still don’t know. (I had said his ordeal would be over soon and got a two-word response: “Thank fuck.”) Later, he publicly cheered up.
Putting It All Out There
So what are you supposed to do when you witness a public meltdown? Rutledge suggests two possible strategies for people furrowing their brow at the screen in concern. If it’s a good friend who’s acting erratically, “try to contact them — you should take it seriously and find out whether they’re having a terrible day or exaggerating or if there’s real cause for alarm.” And if you’re not close to them, find someone who is and ask if they can check in.
For all you know, there may be a serious mental health issue at play. “The good thing about social media is that it is public, and you can spot a red flag sooner than if someone shuts themselves away with their depression,” Rutledge says, but you can’t diagnose someone by their posts. (Amanda Bynes’ mother, for example, later insisted her daughter had never been diagnosed with a mental illness, despite claims that Bynes was schizophrenic after her bizarre posts.)
Jurgenson says we should all be more forgiving of public eruptions. “Our go-to is to shame someone or to say, ‘I’m glad I didn’t have Facebook in high school,'” he says. “But we’re all going to post things we’re embarrassed about. Our response shouldn’t be to gawk but rather to help or simply to move on.”
If you are the one feeling upset and tempted to go public, Rutledge suggests that “engaging the rational brain before posting is a good rule. Write anything you want, but before you hit send, read it again. Save it in a text file and wait a few minutes.” What feels necessary to say in the moment may feel like too much later on. Just ask Jackie Mancini, 31, from Brooklyn, who, after ending a six-year relationship, found herself “behaving like an adolescent” on social media. “I didn’t know what to do on my own. I’d lost the person who was my main outlet to talk to about my life, so I started to do it publicly.” (Sample tweet: “Unfortunately for me, last night I saw $25 open bar @ my work X-mas party as a challenge, alley-puked, and then ate snow off a trash-can lid.”)
Now, when she’s struggling, Mancini goes to a friend: “There’s something to be said about eye contact and the physical presence of a person to help you through.”
But that’s not going to be the case for everyone, which is why Jurgenson thinks, in some cases, we should get over trying to present a perfect public portrait and stop expecting it from everyone else.
“If we truly want social media to be social, to capture the entirety of human experience, it’s going to include those emotions that have traditionally been more private,” he says. “Let’s say we do regret being as public as we were. We can either shame ourselves, or we can look at how we’ve grown since then.”
After the Meltdown
Shared more online than you wish you had? Shawn Sachs, whose firm, Sunshine Sachs, reps stars like Jennifer Lopez and Leonardo DiCaprio, has your back. After all, our own personal dramas can swiftly go viral. “You’re two clicks away from international news,” he says. His disaster management tips:
1. Consult your people. You may not be able to hire the likes of Sachs, but most of us have a couple of trusted advisers we’d consult before, say, texting our crush back. Ask people who care about you for their advice.
2. If you need to apologize, address the problem head-on. “I advise any client with a digital problem to realize it’s not just a digital problem,” says Sachs. “You need to first talk to the people who are affected by what you’ve said and address the core issue.” That’s best done face-to-face or on the phone.
3. Know when to stay mum. If the situation feels like it’s gotten out of control, says Sachs, “pause, understand what’s happening … and stop sharing.”
This article was originally published as “Public Meltdown: Could You Be Next?” in the August 2014 issue of Cosmopolitan. Click here to subscribe to the digital edition!