Cafe Witness

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Negative Drain

I have to be honest with you: I have trouble empathizing with people.

It's not because I don't care when bad things happen. It's because, by and large, the things that happen aren't "bad" or "good" -- they're just things -- and what determines their effect in our lives is how we react to them.

I make mistakes. I indulge in self-sabotage. I frequently make decisions I'm fairly certain are not optimal. And, when it comes time to pay the price, I expect no sympathy from other people because, let's be honest, I brought that complication / conundrum / failure upon myself.

Thus, when YOU do the same thing, it's hard for me to feel especially bad for you. After all, it's not like you didn't have options.

What This Has to Do With Social Media

We're all connected, now more than ever, as we forge our way through each day. We all know that life moves fast, and we only have so much time to achieve our dreams. So, ideally, we help push each other forward -- or at least we get out of each other's ways.

More often than not, our success in life is based upon two principles: perseverance and momentum. Few are the mountains that are conquered without the aid of one or the other; we call those "hills."

So when we're sifting through our millions of media impressions each day, you know what ISN'T helping us achieve our dreams?

The Negative Drain.

That's the stray "woe is me" Twitter / email / blog post / news article / ABC News exclusive that distracts our inner momentum and derails our perseverance. It forces us to stop moving forward and address someone else's -- or our own -- need to wallow in self-pity.

In short, it's not helping anyone.

Why Your Bad Day Doesn't Matter

You bad day isn't a bad day: it's just a day. You happened to be in a bad mood. Therefore, that neutral day registers as a bad day in your mind.

You now have two choices:

A) Suck it up, fix it and get on with your life.

B) Alert the world to your misfortune in the hopes of generating sympathy.*

How often we allow ourselves to indulge in B directly affects our own momentum and perseverance. Ironically, it also affects everyone else's.

How many times has this happened to you: while scrolling through everyone's recent messages on Twitter, following all the project updates, useful questions, cries for tech help and neverending inside jokes -- WHAM! -- someone is having a bad day. In fact, their day is SO bad, they had to Twitter it.

Their day was SO BAD, they had to announce it to the world, in the hopes that the world would somehow intervene and make everything okay.

Goodbye, momentum.

The Negative Drain Exception

As humans, we're great at realizing when we're getting screwed by the world at large. And, inevitably, we need to vent about it or we'll snap.

In order to vent without losing momentum, we've developed a useful tool called "irony." Thanks to irony, the clever among us can point out the ills of the world without falling prey to the lure of self-pity.

Sometimes, it's even funny.

Believe me, there's a BIG difference between people who cry out to the world for sympathy and people who laugh their way through a bad day.

The ones laughing are the ones you'll meet on the other side of the mountain.

* Admittedly, there are times when we, as humans, also NEED sympathy. Sometimes, life seems unbearably cruel, and irony isn't enough to weather the storm. Sometimes, we actually NEED someone else -- or a whole world of someones -- to help us through.

The problem is, in our increasingly self-focused world, where everything that happens to us is mistaken for news, the line between "inconvenience" and "life-changing tragedy" is becoming highly subjective. Where we once expected sympathy for the loss of a loved one, some of us now expect the same for the loss of some stored data on a hard drive.

Meanwhile, one friend of mine is currently navigating some serious family misfortune. If anyone I know deserves sympathy, or at least the right to vent about life, it's her. And yet, she's consistently one of the sunniest people I know. In fact, SHE tends to buoy MY spirits, even though her "bad" days FAR outweigh mine.

In the end...

...there is no good and bad. There's just perspective.

Onward and upward.

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  • Very astute analysis. I agree that the "I'm having a rotten day" is usually a worthless bit of information.

    It's as bad as "I'm eating a pizza slice right now" or the wretched "Sitting in _____ airport and bored." type tweets.

    When supposedly smart pundits twitter such crap, it makes me think they're not so smart after all the hype has cleared.

    What annoys me is the probable attitude:

    "Blogs are for meat, Twitter is for trivia".

    That attitude sucks.

    By Blogger steven edward streight, at 10:32 AM  

  • I just realized what a self important asshole I am. I just twittered so much crap about my shitty day then I read this post. wait I am doing it again.......

    By Blogger Mike McAllen, at 10:39 AM  

  • Justin, I agree that it's a drain to be hit continually with others' bad news and whining. But I also find the continually cheerful to be grating. Everything can't be always good, and everyone can't always be upbeat. And that's part of the point.

    Part of what I like about Twitter, for example, is its randomness. The link to an interesting article followed by someone's cry of anguish from a boring meeting followed by a cheer of joy from someone who's solved a problem: It feels like a snapshot of the world, or at least the Twitter world, and it's an intriguing mix.

    If the posts were all upbeat and cheery, then when I was a little down I wouldn't feel cheered -- I'd feel left behind.

    I also see your point about irony, but I am leery of irony's ubiquity in our culture. Not everyone does irony well, and it's easily misinterpreted anyway, particularly in a thin medium like a 140 word Twitter item.

    My suggestion is that one not project a false cheeriness, nor broadcast every woe. Balance is key, as it is in pretty much everything.

    By Anonymous Cynthia Closkey, at 10:45 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger John R. Carman, at 11:09 AM  

  • I never saw a wild thing /
    sorry for itself. /
    A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough /
    without ever having felt sorry for itself.

    — D.H. Lawrence

    By Blogger John R. Carman, at 11:13 AM  

  • Amen.

    By Blogger Becky McCray, at 11:58 AM  

  • Only one thing worse than constant moaning. Synthetic happiness.

    Have a nice day is one target!

    By Blogger Charles Frith, at 12:57 PM  

  • I was introduced to Twitter being described as "expressing right now". Unfortunately, sometimes right now isn't as happy. Or pertinent information to everyone. If I'm having a bad day, I do express it, but try to keep it interesting wherever I can.

    By Blogger sirpsychosexy, at 2:30 PM  

  • There is a big flip side to this whole argument. That's the fact that Twitter is a social networking site. We can't forget the "social" in social networking. Being social is to interact. If I notice someone who I know is usually "up" having a particularly bad day, I'll DM them with a nice note to try and cheer them up. I like to think this works... For that reason, I don't mind seeing an occasional truthful tweet about how someone might be feeling down. It's not just about keeping our own momentum up, but to help pick others up who you've been following when you know it's not in their character to be a negative drain.
    FYI - I am NOT talking about whiners. Luckily, we can choose not to follow these people if their constant self pity twittering becomes a bit too draining.

    By Anonymous (Sassy) Sonya Buyting, at 3:31 PM  

  • You have highlighted and interesting trend here, I must admit. I offer this point to consider though: ‘Woe-Is-Me’, for as much as I read and seen in the social media sphere is hardly limited to bad days or hard drive malfunctions.

    ‘Woe-Is-Me’ could be a wonderful title for that classification of blog entry in which I might place most of the ‘inability to manage time’, ‘get things done’, or ‘financial difficulties’ posts. A lack of empathy might be in order for a person who felt those were not their issues or who simply felt the author didn’t apply the correct life principle to the situation. However, I try very hard to empathize with whoever feels their issue is worth presenting to the public – even if I do not or can not understand how it could be so. Truth is they might not be able to cope with a situation in a way that for me is second nature or subconscious.

    I think everybody’s bad day matters… to them. So they decide to blog, twitter, etc about it. So what? The responsibility of how to react to ‘Woe-Is-Me’ I think falls to the reader. Can I disseminate an attention seeker or emotional leech from the guy in financial straits whose lost data contains a project worth thousands? Sure. My own intelligence is my best defense against the ‘negative drain’.

    By the way, I am truly envious of one’s ability to see bad events in their life as just being par for the course and get on without occasionally feeling the need for occasional self-pity over something commonly considered trite. Such ability is one step closer to Zen.

    Cheers my friend.


    By Anonymous AndrewSmith, at 5:16 PM  

  • Good points, all. I'm not saying "DON'T empathize," so much as I'm saying, "Why are we all so focused on STOPPING AND COMPLAINING instead of powering through and GETTING THINGS DONE"?

    Andrew, you're right: I'm as guilty of self-pity as the next person. However, realizing that about myself, I try to temper that self-pity with a proactive solution to the same bad behavior that got me in trouble in the first place.

    Fucking up isn't a problem. Fucking up and not learning from it... or repeating it... or blaming somebody else for it... is.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 5:47 PM  

  • Wow, that was a really good read. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Keep them coming.

    By Anonymous Philip Crow, at 6:08 PM  

  • I've definitely considered unsubscribing from a few of my friends on twitter because of their seemingly endless stream of negativity on there.

    I agree that venting and telling others about trouble, especially from those that don't do it that often, puts some of the social in "social network." Reacting to and comforting and/or helping people is what makes things like twitter really powerful and great.

    That said, those that are endlessly critical or complaining about their life and situation have a tangible effect on me - the "negative drain" that you menioned. I actively work to limit that kind of drama in my life.

    The good news is that it's kind of hard to see which of your 100+ followers stopped following you on twitter, so deleting some of that drama from your daily feed is fairly painless.

    By Blogger Eric Skiff, at 6:17 PM  

  • Recently twitter has become a conversation with people I know and consider as friends. So when expressing feelings or thoughts to them I can count on them to react accordingly. I could easily post twitter messages about how busy I think I am all day, but ya that would suck. So when i do have an issue i feel the need to post about. ie: when I had a flat tire it was really great when my friends on twitter responded with concern and offers of help. At that moment i took for granted posting what I was doing right then without thinking it could be conceived as a call for help.

    When first entering into twitter it was described to me as a place where you can post when you are eating a sandwich or going home for the day. Twitter has become something much greater than that and I feel I check twitter more often that email (especially on the move).

    So i guess it is kind of nice to know there is a community you can turn to when you need to vent, etc. But I also firmly agree with Cindy, everything in moderation.

    By Blogger Norm, at 6:27 PM  

  • Good post, because it generated such a rich thread. Personally, I don't mind happy Tweets or sad ones, as long as they are genuine. Happy/Purposeful can cry, "Me, me, me!" as well as Sad/Stuck, but if they're real, either can help me through a day by testifying to the fullness and weirdness of life.

    By Blogger Len, at 6:48 PM  

  • There's a lot going on in this post & thread that's worth reflecting on. Yes, the comfort is important sometimes (okay for me a lot recently). But when you're down there's an opportunity to try to tweet productively about it. That can be interesting as a process for working thru stuff. That also gets to what Len is saying about the poetry of the real, in twitter's cross section of lives being lived.

    I actually joined twitter with the express goal of surrounding myself with interesting, stimulating people. So Eric Skiff is exactly right about editing who you follow to suit what you are looking for.

    By Anonymous Laura Athavale Fitton, at 8:59 PM  

  • It's a tribute to the compelling nature of this topic that I immediately thought of it this morning when I read a post by Deek Deekter that included this statement: "It's no secret that I have suffered serious depression in my life, and I have no shame in telling of my journeys through the underworld of mental anguish; indeed I believe it is the duty of all sufferers to report back from the brink as best they can, for the benefit of those who need healing, that the light is still available to them whether or not they pay their personal electricity bill."

    Not every visitor to the underworld comes back with writing as fine as Deek's. But what a dreary place our happiness would be without access through blogs and even Twitter to the whole enchilada of human experience.

    Deek's post is at

    By Blogger Len, at 5:29 AM  

  • I tend to agree with you, Justin, though I know that I slip into complaining. I also slip into ranting, and commentary on issues in the news, society, and the rest of the social world.

    To me, at least, there's a difference between ranting about something that is hopefully couched in that irony you spoke of, and the Negative Drain. And because most of the blogs I frequent are people I either know, or have grown to know in whatever way you can "know someone" through posts, and I am interested in those ups and downs of their life.

    This should not, however, be confused with the Emo phenomenon. From your post, that is exactly the kind of mentality that I think fits Negative Drain, and I usually remove them from my various lists and communique when I notice that constant kind of behavior.

    There's a difference between venting frustration with life's ups and downs, and taking agency for those swings of the pendulum, and sitting back and crying "Woe is me" and doing nothing. Bottom line, though, is that we have the choice to read/listen/associate with those people or not.

    Loved the post...

    By Blogger D.M. Papuga, at 12:39 PM  

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