Can you use the Internet for empathy?
Yeah. Last year I was teaching a playwriting course at Yale, and I feel like Twitter was on my kids’ minds, but they wanted to write a lot about Twitter, and I had just gotten on Twitter, so it was on my mind. And what was interesting was around the time that they were writing — they were supposed to be writing cultural critiques — was when that Boston Marathon bombing happened.
A couple of their essays ended up focusing on what is the role of social media in response to a tragedy, and a lot of interesting issues came up. There was clearly something that rubbed them the wrong way about the sort of outpouring of empathy that comes up on the Internet. Like, one guy had all this beef with the phrase, “Our thoughts and prayers go out,” or something that felt like it was really hollow and trite and what did it mean that it was so easy to offer and that there was no work behind it? And this other girl was taking issue with people who would do things like post photos on Instagram for email listings they’d gotten for charitable donations. Stuff like that.
I feel like when we critique hollow displays of empathy on the Internet, what we’re critiquing is usually some aspect of empathy that is much more deeply entrenched but just made visible. For example, we’re critiquing the way that whenever we feel empathy, we also feel proud of ourselves. So it starts to feel a little bit dirty or polluted. And so be it, I think there’s something valid in that, if you are thinking about how your empathy makes you look, to the exclusion of actually empathizing or acting on your impulse, that’s misguided and ultimately not that useful.
But that’s not because of the Internet; that’s always been a part of empathy. But it becomes part of our identity gratification and it doesn’t necessarily mean that something like that going on, some kind of pride that can be validated there can also be something beautiful or useful in these exercises. I think in this way, the Internet can shine a little spotlight on things we have been uncomfortable about or should have been uncomfortable about for a while. It means that a lot of things that wouldn’t otherwise get said get said. I like to think there’s something about the mass support that could be comforting, but again the danger is if a tweet becomes a substitute if you live in Boston and instead of donating blood you’re just tweeting about your feelings.
How long did you work on the book?
The first essay I wrote in 2006, but I hadn’t been working on it constantly since then. The bulk of the essays were written between 2009 and 2012, I would say. So three years. There were a lot of other things going on in my life, work-wise, I was working on my first novel, and then I was working on another novel, and a lot of the essays started when I was really frustrated by the experience of that novel, so I gave myself permission to follow these [essays].
The one that I always think about is the Barkley Marathons one [“The Immortal Horizon”]. Because I was living in Iowa, working on this novel, frustrated by this novel, and I decided I was going to go to this race and write about it, and it was just such a pure, fun experience writing. Part of it was that I wasn’t trained as a journalist so it felt like an experiment, it felt new, I felt kind of liberated. For a while I think they gained a lot of energy because they were side projects.