It was another start to another 4am morning. I often wake at this time, but I’ve learnt of late that I shouldn’t go near social media when this happens. All too many a time, I’ve shared my early morning emotions with the world that it’s now become the girl who cried wolf. The only difference was today I wasn’t actually distressed, but when you have shown a pattern of behaviour to the world over some time it tends to be assumed that if you are posting at that time, it has to be about the same thing again. As the result, you may be seen but won’t be heard.
True enough analytics showed a leap in visits to my profile but engagement remained at zero. People are there but not for you. It’s human curiosity playing out in the digital realm.
Social media is a minefield for those of us with disabilities and mental health struggles. We’ve all had moments where we see someone else tweeting about their struggles, it resonates and so we then do the same. Only we don’t get treated the same. For some of us tweeting or posting about our disability can have a vast detrimental effect on how we are perceived, leading people who we thought of as friends to give us the cold shoulder and those in our wider circles never being seen again. For others it’s rewarded, the metrics leap and the supportive comments flow. Because they have a different network and perhaps a more engaged audience to share with. This is why online communities are perhaps so important, because without them we are sharing into a void of people who are there but only want to lurk at best.
When you are an active user of a platform, posting regularly about your ill health or struggles in the world you are faced with the following options.
Join a community where the behaviour of sharing is accepted.
Join a community but don’t speak out.
Don’t join a community and be prepared to be silenced when you do speak out.
It may seem a bit of a dismal picture being painted but part of what ASW is about is calling out the bad and the good of both offline and online behaviours. The behaviours that are not really being spoken about. Without doing so we only stay in the same place, being snowballed into the next trend or evolved behavioural norms that come our way. So that brings us back to the question, why are some of us seen and not heard?
Quite simply, from what I’ve seen from my own experience of sharing and that of others, it’s complex and interconnected. Things like conformity to online norms, societal stigma, and of course the way the algorithm treats us in terms of who we are shown to. We cannot underestimate the impact that the attention economy has on our digital behaviours too. When people come to rely upon likes, comments and followers for emotional or other reasons, we tend to become quite adept at knowing what will put us in a better or worse position for visibility. Interacting with someone who is being Twitter punished and thus ‘unpopular’, might cause people to disengage through fear of their own online identity being damaged or associated with a ‘bad account’. Let’s be honest, it’s run through our minds at times.
We’ve all seen the person who is tweeting out in distress, threads of sheer emotion but at best one or two likes. Maybe a comment here or there. Because a norm of social media, and Twitter specifically is that ‘having a wobble’ is ok, but when someone really roars and lets out the rawness of mental illness or other disabilities, it’s bad. That or it’s too ‘negative’, or ‘too much’. Sadly, the only time when this type of expression is permitted tends to be within online communities that are specific for mental illness, or autism or other disabilities that we are talking about. Yet to truly become a part of these communities takes a long time, and a lot of work to become an active voice.
So honestly, if we can only share the surface expression of our struggles and never truly be ourselves online, is this really any different than offline society?
Are our digital communities and societies truly inclusive, is it really a site of free expression or is it perhaps just because Twitter is ‘off’ right now?
These are questions that I cannot answer alone and would require a lot of research to uncover, but one thing is for sure. Too many of us are being seen but not heard.
Next time you are feeling alone online, know that while it feels isolating there are many other voices out there also being seen but not heard. You are not alone in this. Here at ASW, we aim to bring more inclusion to our communities, which is one of the main reasons why we need to speak out about this stuff.
Because if we are to be allowed to be ourselves, and if the digital world is the answer then we need to be able to have a voice. So next time we see a thread or post from someone in distress, maybe, don’t ignore them. It doesn’t have to be a full conversation, but honestly, even just liking someone’s post when they are in the dark can bring brightness to their day. Because knowing that someone is there helps us to feel less alone.
If you have anything that you would like to add to this discussion, feel free to comment below or come and connect with us on Twitter.