When I look back over the three years since the launch of Digital Women UK (DWUK), I’m struck by the ‘before’ and ‘after’ that is scored into that time
Its launch at London’s City Hall, supported by Jennette Arnold, Assembly Member for North East London, and its one-year anniversary event at Lift, in Islington, belong to the ‘before’ period. A time that was happy and hopeful, until my husband Mark Arram died not long after the birthday celebrations.
The two years since Mark’s very sudden and unexpected death are incomparable to anything I have ever experienced before. Some events shake your world and disrupt it, but this was an earthquake that took everything with it. Afterwards, I had to rethink almost everything about myself, acknowledge that all past strategies for getting through it were useless, and find new ones.
As this is a piece for DWUK, I thought I would reflect on social media from the perspective of the strange otherworld of grief. Many people who have experienced loss describe a feeling of being shut off, almost as if they exist behind a screen, or are somehow invisible.
Navigating everyday conversations is bewildering, so it’s no surprise that social media sites were too. During the early days of mourning, when my sleep patterns were blown apart, I found myself scrolling through Facebook into the small hours. Wonderfully, some friends overseas were awake and available to chat online, while at other times I did the equivalent of flicking through a magazine in a waiting room, intrigued by the lives and preoccupations of my Facebook friends.
Then there was the question of how much I should share on social media. I decided it wouldn’t be very much. Some of Mark’s friends and family wrote blog posts, sharing the news of his death – and I was moved by their words and tributes.
I made a point of sending a personal message to everyone who had been at our wedding, so that they wouldn’t find out randomly. I didn’t close down Mark’s Facebook account; I’ve tagged him in posts for anniversaries and his birthday. It’s been good having a space where people who knew him can share their memories.
In the end I chose not to talk about my experience of grief, or discuss my feelings on social media. I wrote consistently – in a notebook, in a daily journal on my computer, and eventually I got back to writing my blog, where I focused on how we survive devastation, and begin to rebuild.
I also committed to posting a #momentsofhappiness photo on Instagram as close to daily as I could manage. In those intense early days, it seemed possible to tune into the beautiful and joyful things amid the agony. As time passed, and the realisation sank in that this was going to be a long haul, the idea began to feel oppressive. One friend has since said the photos made her sad – perhaps because she knew it was such a tiny crack of light in an otherwise dark landscape.
I didn’t feel robust enough for conversations on social media, as well as the risk that no one would respond. It also seemed that often when someone posts about themselves, it’s taken as an invitation for others to share their stories. Grief is not so much private, but an intensely inward process that I wanted to honour.
The worlds of Facebook and Twitter are where we respond – and move on. That’s fine, usually, but it’s funny when someone passes on their sympathy, tells you they are thinking of you, and then 30 seconds later link to something that made them laugh.
Not only that, social media seems largely success-based; it’s like a party, or networking event where you need to be on top form and put your best foot forward. While I’m not sure I was ever in the running, when it comes to wanting people to admire my beautiful life, it’s a game I am happy to bow out of.
Although life isn’t great much of the time (it’s certainly more lonely, and a lot less funny), I also view myself with a kind of awe, seeing each day as a triumph. Not only did I survive, but slowly, haltingly, life is coming back to me – and that makes me feel like some kind of superhero. I just haven’t worked out how to translate that into 140-characters.
And yet I was dependent on friends and colleagues like my DWUK co-founder Joy Francis, who had always carried the initiative, and very graciously continued to do so when I was blown out of the equation entirely.
Joy was not only wonderfully consistent when it came to staying in touch, she didn’t flap when I told her I would do something, only to have the matter dissolve in my mind entirely until it took shape again weeks or months later, long after the deadline had passed.
This isn’t how I was used to operating, but gradually I learnt that I needed to follow where the small pockets of energy I had were leading me. It wasn’t that I made a conscious decision to end my involvement in DWUK, it was just that I couldn’t find a way back into it.
My journey and questions took me to an Art of Participatory Leadership training event in Athens, and to the Eroles Project in Spain, where I took part in its residency programme called Radically Thinking as a Species. This programme set out to facilitate new ways of thinking and responding to the refugee crisis. Starting this month, I’m doing an online course with U Lab called Reinventing Democracy from the Emerging Future, meeting with fellow participants at the King’s Cross Impact Hub.
Perhaps, when I have more understanding of what I want to achieve through conversations I will be able to work out where social media fits in. I did re-engage, particularly on Twitter, during the EU Referendum, searching out anything I could find from people who were thinking about the next steps.
Social media has helped me to connect with friends in Greece and Spain, and to find contacts when I went to Madrid to find out about the women’s movement there, and the remarkable inroads women have made into the political sphere.
From the outset, it was social media’s potential in the sphere of activism that interested me and led to my role in DWUK. I want to find ways of communicating in real life conversations and in social media, which are effective and creative. When I do, perhaps I’ll be able to share it with you at DWUK.
Meanwhile, I’m also learning that when something ends, there is the potential for new things to emerge, so watch this space for what Joy and Dr Angela Martinez Dy get up to in year four.
Find out more about Digital Women UK’s plans at #DWUKisthree.
Picture credit: sociobits.org
About the author
Julie Tomlin is a British journalist who is based in London, Athens and Madrid. Co-founder of Digital Women UK, she mainly writes about activism and women’s and other social movements. Julie previously wrote for The Guardian, New Statesman and Broadly. Find out more about Julie at her blog Winnable Game, or follow her on Twitter @JulieTomlin.