Finding Constellations: Symbolism in Social media

People use different ways to convey their thoughts and emotions to the world, with some methods more easily identifiable and interpretable than others. Humour can be used as a subversion of pathos, as the light sparkles from a dark river to illuminate individual ripples of meaning; passive-aggression can fill the air between two people with an iron-tang tension, their mouths curled into wire smiles. I’ve always had a secret admiration – and yes, envy – for those who are able to come straight out with an intended meaning, with little to no subtext involved, while maintaining the dignity of manners that are the preservation of other’s feelings. The latter is a gift, woven into careful lexical choices and diplomacy.

My means of expression lies with figurative language. The weather becomes a mood; a song becomes a colour becomes an emotional reaction, behind the eyes. I find the world through metaphors and symbolism, and in trying to take control of / make sense of my part in it, I paint with words. Much of the world can be rather dull: grey-on-black-on-white, filing cabinets and coffee-stained carpets, absent faces drifting to and fro, bills and wet shoes. Chores and drinking, fucking in your own bed or someone else’s; collecting deliveries, and wrapping up presents. Visiting and shopping and … So far, so very human.

Since humour, wit and openness do not come easily to me, it’s through symbolism in particular that I make my presence, and intentions known. It’s also a bit more enlivening for the soul to create a running narrative of images, than stating plain old facts – though for whoever is on the receiving end (depending on their level of patience for this prevarication) it can be a delight or a chore to slog through.

There is also the element of concealing, rather than revealing my nature. When a subject becomes too intimate, controversial or uncomfortable for clear definitions, there’s the fall-back of figurative language to represent what I mean, with interpretations left wide open. It is the riddle-speak of the cat, and can bail me out of trouble or land me in heaps of it. A relative once told me that I trod a fine line between honesty and cowardice, in not speaking my truth upon serious matters with anything more than plain facts; a thought and assumption which I am still turning over in my mind, wondering if it was an accurate statement. As I grow older, and gain confidence in my own opinions, I’m working towards being more open and direct with meanings – if only to save time.

Then again, on less important matters – in everyday conversation – imagery can set free the mind from the mundane. This is particularly true on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter (my prevalent platforms), which allow for a symbolic dialect that is otherwise unavailable in the kinetic world, unless you carry a pack of Post-Its around.

On Twitter, I can tweet an image of a blue rose, or describe one, to convey the sort of multifaceted emotion which transcends plain definition, and enters a symbolic spectrum of meanings. I’m relying on symbolic interaction theory to get my point across, whereby the flower and its colour are interpreted in accordance with the subjective associations each individual audience member has with them. While the colour blue may lead one reader to think of the unending sky, the fathomless sea, the eternal mutability of the natural world, another person may find sorrow and a wistful longing attached to the shade, for the rose genus cannot naturally produce the pigment delphinidin necessary for blue in the petals, thus rendering the image as symbolic of a love that is as mysterious as it is unobtainable; beyond the reach of reality.

It is through the language of Twitter – its trends, its retweets, its favourites; its words, images, memes and videos – that we may convey meaning in symbolism. It has opened up channels of communication for those who, like me, tend to find the vocalisation of intentions, ideas and emotions, more stilted and awkward than in lexical form. Introverts can flourish, without the exhausting addition of physical presence and paralinguistics (though I still need to take time away every now and then, to let my head be quiet); writers can bend the minds of a wider audience with their imaginations; hobbies and professions can become the central theme for communities, which in turn may overlap one another, as occurs in everyday life. This is an integral part of the social networking experience, and strengthens its continuity, for we tend to proceed from the kinetic world to the cyber, for two main reasons: so that pre-established interpersonal relationships / connections can be maintained, and to interact with others of a similar mindset, to engage with them and share content. If interaction and microblogging of information are the running threads that pull people together across the fabric of Twitter, giving it form in the minds of its users, then the symbolism of shared facts and opinions, the retweeting of others as an extension of “voice” (to endorse or inform), and the various media formats available to enhance meaning, are its embroidery.

In cyberspace, the limits of physical proximity and distance are broken down by the immediacy of the internet. Time-zones permitting, two people may interact in such a way that was once unimaginable. Bonds are formed across nations, cultures and societies are experienced and learned about on both academical and personal levels. World travel is, for the moment, not a physical reality for me – but on Twitter, I am granted the freedom to walk through the minds of friends and acquaintances, with the content of tweets acting as both their voices and as guiding lights, while moving through unknown areas. As a friend put it to me yesterday, it is rather incredible when you stop to think about it – people are not really standing with us, talking to us; they are tapping away on their phones and computers, often with no one else in the room. It this suspension of disbelief that we have accepted as the norm – great streams of information flowing past, and static profiles that we have come to accept as personalities, with the profile picture symbolic of a person – even when it does not actually feature their visage.

Friends have told me of visualizing Twitter as a large open space – typically a theatre, room or hall – with a constant flux-flow of information roiling past in all directions, as though standing at the crux of a highway. I tend to see that vast space filled with slanting bars of different shades of pale light, with a high ceiling and small, dark alcoves along the walls for more intimate conversations; there is a harlequin of sound coming from an ever-changing multitude of people, standing and sitting in groups, or alone and apart. This image is not so much an actual vision as a sensation, such as you would find in dreams, or in the colours which appear behind my eyes when listening to music. Less form, more presence.

At the same time, I am aware of that information constantly rushing past, to the point where – if I am tired or not feeling well – it is enough to bring on giddiness, and there is the need to step back and say nothing at all, to log off and leave well alone. This “channelling” aspect may arise from the use of Twitter lists, which collect people into easily accessible “communities.” This has the advantage of saving time – rather than pin-balling across the main timeline to gauge an atmosphere relevant to a situation, or to find information on a particular topic, I can skim across tweets and links holding key words which, in turn, form patterns. There is less of a need to clamber over many disjointed tweets, which all have their own relevancy, but are not a part of the constellation I seek.

The main appeal of keeping such lists, though, is when I stumble across a conversation between friends, which has grown legs and run on for hours, across nations and time-zones. I can choose to engage, or to sit back and watch it all unfold, thus learning more about the lives and personalities of people who I may never meet in the “real world”, but who have become so dear to me through almost daily interactions, our sharing of miscellaneous and personal information, and something which goes beyond words, but is often found in a single photograph or song.

Angel Olsen, “White Fire”
(courtesy of Ansh @lightnarcissus)

Who are we as writers, without words? We are bad tempers and blue-black moods; we are irritability found in crumpled paper and deleted files. We are frantically-stirred coffee, and empty bottles. We are red-rimmed insomniac eyes, or the lowest level of sleep, difficult to dredge for dreams or to wake from. We are …
Finding other outlets.

I have thought on this quite a bit, in light of recent events: a maelstrom of global disorder, and tragedy spanning nations. The past few weeks have been rough, and my voice has paled and faded to the back of my throat and mind, like the first frost-rimed leaves of autumn.

There are needle-points of heat behind my eyes, with each liveblog update and tweet coming from the most recent conflict in Gaza – and a silver-foil fear that lines my throat whenever I try to speak up about it, for fear that my lack of real knowledge and context will inadvertently upset someone representing either side. I find myself falling back evermore on symbolism, just to get across some kind of emotion that refuses to be turned into words. It often feels as though no amount of research can ever do it all justice, or permit me to understand what is going on, beyond the sickening lurch in my stomach each time I hear or read about yet more casualties and loss of life on either side. The grim reality of lives in war is pain, injury and death, and more often than not for the ones who take no active part in the conflict. Yet the very fact that we are willing to gather this information, to share it for the benefit of others so that we might come to a better understanding of a situation we are not part of but still feel wrenching sorrow and horror for, is symbolic of a wish to keep hold of the wider world. The pictures of shrines to the fallen, the videos of military advancement, all weave a complex narrative that allow us to engage on a closer, often very raw level. The image of one tiny, frightened child, sums up countless years of pain.

In truth, I had forgotten the power of pictures. I thought there would always be words to find, to portray an image of events and circumstances in the world. But how best to describe the silent-screaming horror and pale numbness which strung out so many on Thursday 17th July, when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down close to the Ukraine-Russia border?. Sometimes, only a photograph – the careful kind, symbolic rather than gratuitous – can encapsulate the pain and confusion felt on all sides.

flags half mast
Matthew Price (‏@BBCMatthewPrice)
“Half mast in Holland – waiting for remains of first #MH17 passengers to be returned.”

On that afternoon, when the sunlight seemed the same as it ever had, Twitter became all but audible in a seething wave of international voices, circling around and aimed at the perpetrators. Tweets spread with forest-fire speed, purporting to hold evidence of the pro-Russian separatists’ involvement in the plane crash. Even as retractions were made and tweets deleted by the DNR, the world took a great stride ahead, with information spread too far and too wide for recall. This may yet play a vital part in bringing the guilty ones to justice; a fitting example of solidarity on social media, drawing people together as a collective voice of humanity, in the face of tragedy.

And yet, at the end of it all, we are still left with this lost feeling; this sense of Where do we go from here? The world is currently in a state of upheaval, with many people feeling off-kilter. I know I have an itch at the back of my mind, wondering how to get on with everyday life while things stand as they are … and not still, for very long. We’ll see what the second half of the year brings.

In the meantime, we fall back on the voices and the minds of those around us. In seeking solace, we can look outward as well as inward, and pass on pieces of ourselves to the world – the things that matter, which have caught our emotions, and suit the circumstance. In bringing something to the narrative that will sum up what cannot be put into ordinary, plain speech, we leave our unique marks upon the community. There is solidarity in symbolism.

Song in Space
(via corrie_corfield)


5 thoughts on “Finding Constellations: Symbolism in Social media

  1. Your post, as ever, spoke to me on many levels Rach. Thank you x

  2. amnesiasoup says:

    Good one. I’ll be musing upon this for awhile.

  3. joehefferon says:

    “… I’m working towards being more open and direct with meanings – if only to save time.” Efficiency is good, and ominous when spoken with that Gordon Gecko voice. We speak obliquely which wastes time, then lie awake regretting it, wasting more time. So to avoid double-dipping from double-speak, just be blunt, one time. Walk over to your mirror, sober, and say ‘Rachael, you’re hot’. Then go write something.

  4. jimmicampkin says:

    Whilst I admit to not reading every single news article about MH17, all the ones I did read spoke of tragedy and catastrophe and loss. Which are all fair emotions to convey. But none of them called The Event by it’s true name – A War Crime. The people on board that plane seem to have been regarded as martyred pawns in a global chess game, which I think does them and their violent end a pampered disservice. People need to be standing in The Hague for this, and any future ceasefire or cooling of hostilities should not water down a push for justice.

    • raishimi33 says:

      I’ll send you some links later, to articles demanding such justice – there have been people calling it a war crime, but they are not the ones at the level of power to make a difference, sadly. It’s more difficult than with the Cold War, granted – closer economical ties, integration between nations etc. But these can’t be used as excuses, as with the sale of the Mistral warships. That France can even consider pushing this deal forward, in light of Ukraine and certainly post-MH17, is testament to how weak integrity and consideration for the safety of others, has become, in the face of preserving trade. Even Germany has learned this, though still not to the degree that they can ratchet up more than sanctions 2.9.5 with the rest of the EU.

      We’ll see. There is enough evidence pulled from social media to make a case against the perps; it’s how much the necessary authorities are willing to risk further conflict by basing a case on these, with Rus twisting and turning, getting antsy. The rhetoric is played down to ‘tragic loss’, but not by all. That anger needs to be maintained. No more falling back with slaps on the wrist; but there is also the safety of the Baltics etc to consider. Rus won’t stab out front – it will lash out sideways, with sanctions and disruption in those areas around it, rather than tackling the West head on.
      (For now at least; he keeps shifting the goal posts.)
      Those people who died, can’t be left to become tragic heroes. They didn’t know what they were a part of.

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