Sad Twitter: How the Myth of Beautiful Suffering Lives on in Our Tweets

︎ Winner of the 2018 Trimble Prize for Excellence in Writing — UT Austin ︎

By Kateri David, March 2018

Try your hand at pinpointing Twitter’s allure as a social media platform, the exact itch that drives its 330 million users to log on each day and scroll once more through their feeds, always in search of something. Maybe it’s connection, the privilege of being able to glance into a snapshot-sized version of someone’s mind and leave feeling as though you’ve struck at their essence. Judging from Twitter’s design, you’re not far off. The instant you tap on an account’s display name, you begin collecting hints, ferreting out who someone could be. The search begins with the framed profile picture, their quippy bios. It’s in looking below the banner, however, that you become submerged in an experience akin to reading shards of a personal diary. Here, you can scroll through a linear history: Personality and mood are branded with time stamps, packaged to us in visuals and thought-bubble sized tweets. A multi-media still life. Only in this gallery, every idea is a commodity promoted through Retweets, with a “follow” being the strongest symbolic gesture of support for a body of thought.

From the outset, Twitter’s layout seems rife with treatment possibilities and support options for those of us battling clinical depression, especially considering the recent explosion of “sad tweets.” Shouldn’t we rejoice when the account @sosadtoday receives over 6,000 likes for tweeting “for the love of god can someone just get me out of my body?” Shouldn’t we feel less alone when we see @uglywolf_, an account dedicated to grunge aesthetics, posting pictures of tragic icons like Kurt Cobain or girls with mascara smeared from crying, amasses over 24,000 followers? I’m sure we would, if these tweets promoted recovery, or if these accounts were in any way dedicated to a non-glamorized depiction of depression in its nuance, its quiet brutality. As it stands, and despite invoking themes of self-pity and loneliness, sad tweets deter Twitter users with depression from seeking help by perpetuating the myth of beautiful suffering. And the chorus of “likes” signal tremors of something more sinister – a gradual re-shaping of depression symptoms themselves.

It should come as no surprise that depression accounts garnering the largest followings are those producing smarmy, melodramatic content as opposed to focusing on the debilitating feelings associated with this mental illness. That idea’s a bit too abysmal, human. Following this logic, it makes sense that the more popular tweets push a palatable, “artistic” image of the depressed as mysterious and possessed of feeling few can understand. This concept isn’t new. From the dawn of novels and cinema, depressed or mentally unstable individuals have often been depicted as objects of fascination for other characters, who take it upon themselves to either romanticize to or fix the afflicted. Sad Twitter buys into this myth by indulging suffering and ideas of darkness. At best, accounts centered on sad talk post black-and-white pictures of the depressed individuals as being isolated, pining for someone to understand their sadness. At worst, they revel in the taboo, tweeting what can be described as nothing less than self-hate, glorifying cutting with no hint at hope. But as much as these tweets are an offshoot of this well- worn cultural trope, they are equal parts a product of the information era.

As any psychologist will tell you, Sad Twitter paints a reductive caricature of clinical depression. Of the nine symptoms cited in the DSM-5, only two cite negative self-talk and suicidal thoughts. The remaining seven deal with depressed moods and the side effects resulting from diminished interest. This is the face of depression as we know it, stripped of the sheen and secrecy. Why, then, are the most popular “depression” tagged tweets centered on self-loathing and isolation? One answer can be found in modern Western culture. With mass exposure to misery and violence, there is an invisible clamor to be recognized as “different,” and popular sad tweets inadvertently capitalize on the shock value innate to self-loathing talk and self-harm practices — a power that simply talking openly about the underlying desperation or blankness no longer possesses. This is not to diminish those who are truly afflicted with these symptoms, but only to point out that these tweets center around an exclusively expressive version of depression that establishes an elusive “sadness” as the illness’ root cause. And based on the sheer number of likes and RTs these tweets receive, this is the face of depression the internet acknowledges.

According to Twitter analytics, 37% of users are between the ages of 18 and 29, while 25% of users fall in the 30-49 age range. Combine this with the fact that The Anxiety and Depression Association of America positions clinical depression as the leading disability for ages 15 to 44. It’s now clear that in the case of a disorder as pervasive as depression, Twitter’s representations will certainty trickle into the perceptions of young, depressed individuals. There are some who may connect with the sadness, finding solace in shared feelings of despair, in the depictions of fellow sufferers as being “apart.” The beautiful suffering lulls them into being complacent with pain; convinced of their feelings and not wanting to lose their insight, they feel no need to heal and they continue to suffer.

There are other Twitter users who are afflicted by MDD – myself included – that feel the thoughts expressed on popular depression accounts do not accurately reflect our experience. We may not be as expressive in our symptoms, or simply do not act out on negative impulses. According to the majority of Twitter, we do not experience depression in the “right” way, and some of us may be driven to take more extreme measures in order to have our emotional distressed acknowledged, whether or not this corresponds with our true feelings.

Although the messages flaunted by Sad Twitter adherents seem melodramatic, and I would concede that the effect of adding a single sad tweet to this deluge is miniscule, we cannot ignore the sheer number of RTs and likes that some particular tweets receive. And in mental illness symptoms, as in democracy, majority rules. This phenomenon is described in Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters, a book focusing on the influence of Western media on mental illness symptoms worldwide. Watters introduces the idea of a limited “symptom pool,” meaning that if an emotionally distressed person wishes to have their pain addressed in a meaningful way, they will be forced to unconsciously select and embody the symptoms of whichever afflictions are considered by a culture to be a true form of mental illness. These symptoms correspond to reigning psychological theories and popularized depictions of the time.

If Watters’ postulate proves true, then “Sad Twitter,” wild inaccuracies and all, may narrow accepted expressions of depression down to those deemed “beautiful.” And although the criteria of depression may shift from dejection and emptiness to expressions of self-loathing, one constant remains: needless pain. Twitter needs to re-create itself as a community that supports treatment, and although the journey to healing through therapy and self-help is very rarely a pretty one, it certainly has more potential for beauty than suffering.