Mourning by Rote: The Dynamics of Weibo Commemoration
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2016-11-18 03:01:35

This is part two in a series about how Weibo affects our memories. The first part can be found here.

As a microblog platform inviting people to share their thoughts in brief updates, Weibo has recorded practically every major news event since its launch in August 2009. The instantaneous writing and circulation of posts create new terms in public discourse and inform our memories of events. The platform has brought a sense of convenience to collective memory.

In times of disaster or tragedy, large numbers of Weibo users tend to react by expressing condolence and grief, and this collective outpouring of emotion leaves traces in cyberspace. Due to the form’s inherent brevity, fragmented pieces of information saturate our social media timelines. Despite the fact that these posts are often unverified, they can still reach a significant number of users. The information they carry affects how we interpret events and allow them to coalesce into memories.

Over the last few years, online commemoration has become a highly ritualized form of behavior. The earthquake that struck the southwestern province of Sichuan in 2008 was perhaps the first time that Chinese people displayed the power of collective commemoration across social media platforms. One upshot of this was that a specialized vocabulary of disaster-relief language came into common parlance.
 
Now, Chinese internet users are all familiar with catchphrase-like expressions exhorting people trapped in a disaster zone to “Please hold on,” with messages telling us that “Tonight, we are all people from (such-and-such city),” or in the worst-case scenario, with personal laments crying, “May the deceased rest in peace and the survivors stay strong.”

Such proclamations usually begin to emerge within minutes of a major disaster occurring. Almost as quickly, the name of the disaster zone, which might previously have been unknown to outsiders, suddenly becomes a household name. Additionally, the mourning public also circulate candle emojis, condolences, and the names of victims.

It is easy enough to show sympathy to suffering strangers on Weibo if all it means is reposting a short message or a string of emojis. But this excuses us from true commitment to the cause.

Perhaps the most curious online aftershock following the 2008 earthquake was that it also marked the advent of the “seventh-day memorial.” According to Chinese folk tradition, the soul of the deceased comes back home on the seventh day after death, just before its final departure into the afterlife. This is regarded as the event that marks the conclusion of the formal mourning period. On Weibo as well, the commemoration of major catastrophes has followed this tradition, with a further spike in activity generally occurring seven days after the initial event. The same trend was observed after the Wenzhou high-speed train crash in 2011, after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, and after the Tianjin explosions in 2015.

While seventh-day memorials signify a renewed interest in the event in question, they also greatly simplify the process of public inquiry. Rooted in a traditional practice which symbolizes coming to terms with bereavement and moving on from it, the seventh-day memorial often carries a sense of public ambivalence toward fully resolving the causes and effects of a tragic event. It is a form of behavior seen predominantly on Weibo, whose functionality makes sharing posts widely across a network easier than the more private format of messaging app WeChat.

The dark side to ritualized commemoration activities is that they simplify, and even purge, the richness of our memories, and may even prevent people from remembering greater social implications of the event in the long run. It is easy enough to show sympathy to suffering strangers on Weibo if all it means is reposting a short message or a string of emojis. But this excuses us from true commitment to the cause. On the surface, online commemoration draws us closer to the sufferers, yet the satisfaction we derive from it is nothing more than vain virtue-signaling if we do not contribute to disaster relief or further reflection.

Online commemoration often goes beyond memorializing the victims’ suffering to touch upon the actions of relief workers. As the scale of the 2015 Tianjin explosions became apparent, news that firefighters had been dispatched to the site prompted the posting and circulation of a popular cartoon. The image of a firefighter walking toward the flames as crowds of people ran in the opposite direction was accompanied by a Mandarin hashtag punning on the verb nixing, which means both to walk against the crowd and to be nonconformist, maverick, or cool in one’s attitude. Given the severe danger faced by Tianjin’s firefighters at the time, the poignancy of the image caused it go viral.

Yet in this particular case, criticism followed on the heels of wide distribution. Some pointed out that the cartoon was actually the work of a Korean artist and decried it as overly sensational. While firefighters were putting their lives at real risk, such content was accused of drawing attention away from the actual event — even of turning  it into an object for consumption.

The Weibo platform is reshaping the dynamics of our memories. While commemorative posts guide us to record the dates, locations, and names involved with certain tragic events, in the long run their circulation leaves us with skeletal, superficial memories of what happened, devoid of context and emotional connection. Instead, what our minds cling to are iconic symbols and catchphrases, fragments of the past that stop us from engaging with it.

(Header image: A woman displays her Weibo post about mourning China’s martyrs, Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, March 30, 2012. Zhang Haiyan/VCG)