“The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed.” — Erving Goffman, The Performance of Self in Everyday Life
In putting us behind screens, social media can seem as though they put us in control of our emotions. We seem to decide what we show to the world, finely curating our “selves” online. But sometimes our emotions overwhelm us, especially when they have to do with loss. Whether it’s the unexpected death of a widely beloved celebrity or something more specifically personal — a breakup or a falling out with a friend — sudden emotionality can prompt tweets that feel too unprocessed to even be on Twitter. But there they are nonetheless, open to anyone’s interpretation.
These tweets can seem raw in their seemingly unguarded sincerity, or worse, they can seem like contrived “cries for attention,” as if seeking attention is inherently shameful. But rather than measure emotional realness in terms of spontaneity, we might instead measure it in terms of interpersonal connection. Does a feeling become real only when it’s shared? And who does it need to be real for in order for it to be cathartic?
Online emotionality openly acknowledges that some feelings need to be performed to be processed. These emotions are shaped as they are expressed; they are performed to be clarified. We never need an audience to perform our emotions, but often it helps. Without an outside audience, we’d be stuck in the inchoate feelings. Sometimes the audience is only ourselves, in front of a mirror, crying, taking a selfie, and crying some more. Sometimes the audience is texting with a friend about how you’re crying. With social media, the tears become more general. But the emotion of a text to a friend fired off in that moment of grief isn’t more or less cathartic or real than the tweet or the solitary weeping; it’s just a different performance.
Performing emotions publicly on Twitter, as they are ostensibly happening, entails different kinds of vulnerability — and opportunity. Tweeting feelings demonstrates a fundamental faith that someone will see; it is a legible gesture of hopefulness that the feelings can and will be processed fully. But these feelings are also thrown into the cauldron with all the other tweets out there, including ones that get a lot more attention.
Some feelings need to be performed to be processed. These emotions are shaped as they are expressed
This can be disconcerting, to have one’s feelings ranked or measurably ignored this way. As odd as it may be for your feelings to be sitting alongside someone’s retweet of a Laverne Cox tweet and an advertisement for British Airways, it feels even odder for those tweets to garner more engagement. But attention metrics don’t merely throw all utterances into competition. For an emotional tweet, the metrics can make sympathy and relatability appear essentially the same. Transforming sadness into textual performance and refining it to make it reverberate with the broadest possible audience is a new way to cleanse oneself of the pain by releasing it into the world, lessening one’s own feelings of isolation while securing a potentially viral consolation. It is digitally native catharsis.
Melissa Broder’s @SoSadToday exemplifies this type of cathartic tweeting — anguish, sadness, and fear encapsulated into single tweets that make it easy to retweet and express such uncomfortable feelings as this. The humor centers the audience rather than the feeling, even as the audience’s response shows that the feeling has become expressible, tangible, understandable. The “realness” of the emotions expressed are confirmed not by their intrinsic intensity or supposed spontaneity but in the reaction they get. Making an audience laugh at your feelings may thereby be among the best ways to master them.
Often it can seem like a binary: A feeling is either emotionally raw and not deliberately funny, or tightly crafted into a joke made for Twitter. But melancholy tweets fired off in pursuit of catharsis are often funny in their emo self-awareness, even as they are sincere in their sadness, regret, confusion, or loss. Sometimes such tweets are accidently funny, as when someone’s really pouring their heart out and losing all perspective. The laughter such tweets can provoke may not be a sign of mockery but of excruciating sympathy. At a certain point, the process blurs, and it no longer matters if the humor was found or intentional, if the tweeter was trying too hard or let their guard down too far. Whatever the case, the humor triggered in social-media emoting signifies that the emotions expressed are being worked over, not alone but collectively.
As a Black woman who fought against slavery Harriet Tubman would be psyched to be on money we use in a capitalistic system based on slavery.
— Curtis Cook (@Curtis_Cook) April 20, 2016
In the essay “Richard Pryor: Melancholy and the Religion of Tragicomedy,” I.A. Durham discusses the affective uses of humor:
Humor as a means of coping may perhaps be equally as common to the human condition as melancholy, especially through its incorporation in other artistic forms. It is plausible that through this medium, the artistic process, as well as the product of the process, helps to shape some form of rehabilitation for the afflicted.
The stand-up comedian and the performatively emotive tweeter all use humor as a coping mechanism, turning intense or mixed feelings into sharable observations. This gives both the comic and the audience catharsis through laughter.
Real-time online confession also works in ways similar to improv comedy, in that the tweeter wants others to react, and they use tweets as a way to heighten emotions. In an improv scene, the point is to continue heightening to make whatever the scene is about more important and to get the other person in the scene to react more so that the audience will laugh harder. The laughter confirms the performance, much as awkward laughter that erupts in giddy moments with a new crush confirms a spark. An emotional clarification is being produced together.
But these forms of comedic catharsis work because everyone in the audience knows they are at a comedy show, or because they know they are flirting IRL. On social media, it’s not so clear. A well-wrought standup joke, no matter how emotionally rich, is always heard as a joke. Improv also occurs within a clear structure, with clear boundaries, through the format of different games (e.g. the Harold). But an emotional, confessional tweet might be seen as insensitive precisely because it is crafted.
There’s a mishmash of reasons for anyone to be on social media at any given time, and on many platforms it’s impossible to know who exactly you are talking to at any given point. The person tweeting something emotional could have someone in mind, or it could be a subtweet. The truth is that comedic confessions of emotion are easily decontextualized online, susceptible to be misconstrued. And given how working through emotions is generally likely to involve ambiguity, irony, and ambivalence, misunderstanding is even more probable.
This makes social media a far more vulnerable space to be emotional, and to be seen. On social media we have less protection, less norms, less support for our performances of the self than we have in person, especially within the context of comedy. As a result, the attempt to experience catharsis online can turn into its opposite. When the social media audience is unpredictable and invisible, our feelings can become just as hard to predict, just as hard to see for what they are.
I screamed cuz a cookie was crunchy.
— Josh Fadem (@joshfadem) April 13, 2016
Jokes used to be retold, growing old and reassuring in their familiarity. Retelling them would allow us to insert ourselves into a well-rehearsed process by which we extract the expected reactions from an audience. Old feelings are recalled and worked through again, and the values the teller shares with the audience are reaffirmed. Familiar jokes confirm common sense in communal laughter.
On social media, however, jokes are not retold but replayed, reposted, retweeted. When we return to jokes on social media, they play a different role. One doesn’t experience the same heightened emotionality of a live re-performance in front of other people — a sense that you’re present in the “now.” Re-reading an old breakup tweet or a tweet about a celebrity’s death is more like looking through old photographs, experiencing a private memory of what was once a public display.
The jokes we make on Twitter have an indexed quality that improv and stand-up do not. To tweet or post reactively in the moment is to create a public archive of linkable emotional content, in which past catharsis becomes future nostalgia. Emotional echoes once available mainly through coincidences — overhearing a triggering phrase, reactivating a lost muscle memory, meeting a stranger’s look that mirrors that of a former friend, hearing a joke on stage that makes you miss a family member’s presence — become seemingly available by choice, on demand. Emotion can also be surfaced algorithmically. In “Taking Care,” Alexis Avedisian discusses how “memories are monetized” by means of this social-media nostalgia, particularly with Facebook surfacing old posts in hopes of pumping them back into circulation and holding users’ attention.
What happens to the feelings that we choose to resurface from our digital index, or that we are forced to re-experience, out of context, without the audience to make the retelling process complete? Can we be the sympathetic audience to ourselves?
When the social media audience is unpredictable and invisible, our feelings can become just as hard to predict, just as hard to see for what they are
John Limon, in his essay “Enrage: A Lenny Bruce Joke and the Topography of Stand-Up,” stresses how “stand-up is uniquely audience-dependent for its value because joking is, essentially, a social phenomenon.” Online, an audience is always theoretically present, so it is no surprise that many stand-up comedians get their start learning how to craft tweets that land.
But unlike stage audiences, the online audience is present in a different way; it is persistent but never galvanized, never unified. Being funny on social media is less about connecting with an audience than it is about crafting durably funny content that even when decontextualized can stand on its own. It’s more like a marketing slogan rather than a joke. I once asked comedian Kate Berlant if her tweets ever made it into her stand-up set. She said that they were something else entirely. In using Twitter “for comedy,” she said, “there’s an immediacy to it that’s obviously very fun.” This immediacy in some ways replaces the comedian’s concern with comedic timing. Because of the character limit and fast pace of Twitter, a tweet is either fire or it’s just not. But once a tweet works, it keeps working.
Retweets and likes and eyes on the content reactivate it; the joke keeps getting laughs long after the comic has processed the emotions behind it. But whatever improvisational impulse to whatever set of emotional conditions that generated the joke are gone. The social bond that lies in traditional joke retelling, or in live comedy contexts, is missing. The Twitterer instead gets a denatured sense of the audience in their mentions. Someone could laugh at the tweet and keep scrolling, an internet voyeur who doesn’t interact with any of the other voyeurs. When the immediacy of a cathartic joke has passed, and the audience has disintegrated into a set of serial passersby, it no longer convenes a community to reaffirm shared wisdom. Essentially, what’s left is a piece of monetized content.
we'll burn that bridge when we come to it
— Aparna Nancherla (@aparnapkin) April 15, 2016
Philosophies of improv profess that no performances can be repeated. Some take this idea further, believing that improv should not even be documented. To document what is fundamentally unrepeatable is to sin against its sacrosanct ephemerality and turn it against its nature.
“The most popular improv advice sounds like spiritual challenges,” Will Hines, the academic supervisor of the New York City branch of UCB, an improv group, writes in an essay called “Improv as Religion.” “You’ve been hungry to have someone tell you to follow the fear. You find a way to make that advice true.” In other words, following the fear in improv is a means of personal growth, guided by the spontaneous reactions of an audience. “Your shows are not a place where you give your services, but are a place where you are being taught by an audience of how to be spiritually and philosophically more bold,” Hines writes. This gives improv a transcendent quality that cannot be matched on Twitter.
In improv, you see how the audience reacts and judge your performance based on laughs. You know what you’re doing wrong from just their facial expressions. The point is to not perform funniness—a common mistake for beginners is noticing when they get laughs and becoming more self-conscious. Instead, the way to get more laughs is to make whatever is happening feel more important, to make the other improviser react more, to let the reactions take you away from self-consciousness. This is when improv shows truly start to kill.
The spiraling sense of stakes makes improv addictive. Twitter can only faintly echo this. Tweeting about emotionally difficult moments or negative feelings we are ordinarily supposed to politely suppress makes a play for the vulnerability and boldness in improv, but the archival nature of Twitter calls its teaching potential into question. Twitter’s metrics simulate that improv teaching about how to behave in the world, but it doesn’t make use of live feelings and it doesn’t typically allow twitterers to be guided by audience reactions away from self-consciousness. Instead the interactions are converted into social and cultural capital. The search for catharsis and personal emotional growth on Twitter can become a cynical pursuit of name recognition.
Because of the character limit and fast pace of Twitter, a tweet is either fire or it’s just not. But once a tweet works, it keeps working
This reflects the critique sometimes made of @SoSadToday — that her tweets are triggering and ultimately leave one feeling more sad and alone rather than empathic and connected through a shared sense of sadness. Unless, of course, you’re texting with your friend about how real the @sosadtoday tweet “text me every hour or don’t text me at all” is when you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable over someone new whose texting behavior is still mystifying. The tweeling then becomes a way to feel understood and heard, not with @sosadtoday or her brand but with an empathic friend who understands this same sense of textual emotional angst.
In The Performance of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman distinguishes between performances that are sincere and those that are cynical:
When the individual has no belief in his own act and no ultimate concern with the beliefs of his audience, we may call him cynical, reserving the term “sincere” for individuals who believe in the impression fostered by their own performance.
At a stand-up comedy or improv show, the question of that belief in one’s performance can’t be dodged. The performer is keenly aware of the audience not only because they are right there but because they will make or break the show with their laughter. Live laughter confirms that the performer is not coming across as unconvincing, as cynically exploiting their emotions.
On Twitter and social media, there is no laughter, only lols. The affirmation is mainly through tweets that are liked and retweeted. This may make them wonder if they are coming across as cynical. Without live laughter, they can become self-conscious about their self-performance. They might wonder how much of a gap there is between emotions and reactions, and what is motivating their self-editing. There is no equivalent to this in improv, where the mandated ephemerality of the performance lets the performer quickly forget what happened in any scene after it’s over. There is always another who/what/where.
In improv, the performers learn to reduce an idea to its essentialness. As Gary Peters writes in The Philosophy of Improvisation, they come to terms with contingency — “Why this rather than that mark? The improvisation begins, but with this body, these materials, this instrument, these words, in this language, the contingency of what is there and available” — and affirm a certain “hyperawareness” that allows improvisation to occur. They transcend self-consciousness by intensifying it.
For the tweeter who fires off emotional tweets as if they were improv, is there the same hyperawareness? In “Long Live Catharsis,” Alex Huntsberger writes, “To experience catharsis is to experience emotional cleansing through release; it is not why people cry but it is why people let themselves cry.” When we give ourselves permission to emote online, we approach that same freedom in the now of improv, a physical release that moves toward satisfyingly heightened emotions. It’s only natural that we would seek this on social media, where it is always “now.”
On Twitter, we make ourselves vulnerable by not self-editing, by belting out a reactive tweet because #YOLO, not caring about the consequences or the intended audience. But if catharsis is permission, social media lets us take it in advance. And the feedback Twitter provides is not the cathartic laughter of a sympathetic, focused audience but cold metrics, that retract that permission and turn in it to cynicism. The viral feelings return to us as a number.