For those knowledgeable about these things, apparently being number one on BuzzFeed Trending and Facebook Trending is “huge.” The frenzy included mainstream media with articles and interviews appearing in the Washington Post, The Guardian and The Independent, as well as on CNN, Canadian television, BBC Radio 5, South African radio and the list goes on and on. On one site alone the photo received more than one million likes.
I have been inundated with emails, Facebook friendship requests and hundreds, possibly thousands of comments. It is impossible to keep up. Comments have included “Teacher of the Year” and “Feminist Hero.” As a clinical community and organizational psychologist, however, I am fascinated as much by what has not been said as by what has been said.
If I try to sum up what has been said by both journalists and lay commentators, it seems to boil down to this: How refreshing to see education with a human face, and issues of family and parenting addressed in a fresh way. The former articles concentrate on how education should be more than merely content and how educators should be more than content providers. The latter focus on how difficult it is to balance family and educational demands on one’s time and energy, and how to continue parenting when the social environment is not necessarily supportive.
As important as these issues are, there are equally interesting and significant issues that emerge from the reactions to the photo that have not been mentioned. Even articles ostensibly dealing with why the photo went viral concentrated on the event itself rather than the phenomenon.
So what can we learn? I would suggest at least three insights. They relate to the phenomenon itself; to the flood of responses; and to the subtext or music underlying the many, many individual comments. All three are based on a single common assumption. The assumption is that despite the pace of technological change and the digital world we live in, millions of years of evolution cannot be so easily erased.
The implication is that we have been and we remain social animals. As such, our needs for support, intimacy and belonging remain unchanged. This view is captured in an image circulating, where else, on the Internet. It shows a group of young people sitting and playing guitars and singing in union, together with another image of a group with everyone totally absorbed in their smartphones. The caption reads, “Remember when being together was like this?,” referring, of course, to the group singing and interacting with one another.
The first insight is what Seymour Sarason, over 40 years ago, called the psychological sense of community. In his own words, “(It is) the sense that one (is) part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships upon which one (can) depend and as a result of which one (does) not experience sustained feelings of loneliness that impel one to actions or to adopting a style of living masking anxiety and setting the stage for later and more destructive anguish.”
To use a rather old-fashioned concept, it is the antithesis of alienation. So much of what I have experienced over these past weeks seems to be a search for such a psychological sense of community. People are asking for friendship, looking for connections, searching for meaning. They seem to feel that the possibility of finding these are hinted at in the photo and that by turning to me on the Internet they can have these needs met.
Can you find it on the Internet or through social media? I am unsure, but the time has come for each of us to examine in far more depth how social media can and cannot promote our psychological sense of community.
The second insight is the nature of emotional support. We know from decades of research the central role of emotional support, or the lack thereof, in people’s lives. As significant as the discussions on the nature of education and the nature of parenting may be, analyzing the nature of emotional support requires us to ask, among other things, what is the phenomenological reality of the excluded? What does a young mother feel when social pressure or administrative regulations force her into exclusion?
If I understand between the lines correctly from the hundreds of comments I received, it is a terrible feeling of shame, embarrassment, guilt and, worst of all, helplessness. It would seem that this is true of all excluded groups, be they young mothers, the physically challenged or minority groups. Our well-being is contingent on adequate emotional and social support. We cannot manage without them.
The flood of comments reflecting a perceived lack of such support and seeking, sometimes desperately, to achieve it through friendship requests, leaves me, once again, asking, to what degree can they be achieved through the Internet or through social media? Once more, I am unsure. But, are you asking yourself what the sources of your emotional and social support are and how satisfying they are?
The third insight is what I will call “living ethics.” In addition to my academic career, I work as an independent organizational and management consultant. The consulting language constantly talks about “engagement,” “empowerment,” “trust,” “respect,” “authentic leadership” and similar values. It is so easy to mouth these values. To quote Sarason again, however, “Agreement on values is easier to reach than agreement about the appropriateness of value-derived actions.”
So many of the media articles and the Internet comments about the photograph merely address “what” the authors felt should be done in education and parenting but fail to grapple with the much harder questions of “how” we should translate those values into actions.
Technology cannot answer this question. Personal example and role-modeling can suggest possible paths. My photo seems to have captured this for so many. In the words of a dear friend, “the reaction is so strong because the action was spontaneous and sincere and so clearly so. And captured in a photo. It doesn’t translate by words alone.” Who are your role models? What values do their actions convey?
The tsunami has not entirely passed. Requests and queries continue to arrive, albeit at a much lesser tempo. When I am asked, “What would you like people to take away from your photograph?” my answer is simple. Look at the tsunami and not only at the photo that triggered it. I know that there are additional insights to the three I have outlined above. I hope that triggering meaningful self-examination discussion and research on all of these is what this piece is all about.
Social media concept image available from Shutterstock