Emily Howlett: The good and bad of social media when you’re Deaf

Posted on December 5, 2016



I have something to tell you.

A few weeks ago, I mangled myself quite spectacularly. I bent a whole leg in a direction a leg should never bend, and I cannot say I recommend it.

Naturally, I ended up back in my spiritual home; A&E. And because of lifestyle choices I have made over the years (such as having offspring that aren’t self-sufficient yet) and the timing (while everyone was still at work), I was there on my own.

And they couldn’t get me an interpreter (I know…).

And then my CI battery went flat (I KNOW…).

It was fairly horrible. Boring, and painful, and kind of lonely. So, I did what any reasonable adult would do; I wrote a Facebook status about it.

And, suddenly, it was wonderful. I had (brilliant) friends offering to come and sit with me, or to look after the offspring. I had (awesome) friends sending their staff on mercy missions to fetch me new CI batteries. I had (decent) friends being sympathetic and posting comments and pictures to pass the time. And I had (barely tolerable) friends calling me a imbecile/Mighty Morphine Power Ranger. It felt like everyone was in the room with me, but I didn’t have to lip-read any of them.

And when I came home, with crutches and an enormous leg splint that could be seen from space, my phone was constantly shivering with notifications from Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and good old SMS. Offers of help, advice, photos and more smart-arse comments. The time didn’t matter; someone was always there.

It couldn’t have been like this back in the day. I am not so very old that I have to enlist the help of family, friends or unfortunate passers-by every time I want to get out of a chair (Hello, Dad, hope you’re not reading this), but I can easily remember the days when people arrived home, closed the front door and didn’t speak to anyone outside of the house until the next day.

If I’d have mangled myself in 1990, I’d probably still be sitting against a tree, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for someone to find me. If I’d made it to hospital, I’d have been entirely alone during the hours of waiting to be seen by this doctor or that surgeon. It would have been fine, of course – but boring. And lonely.

So, social media is BRILLIANT for Deaf people. It really is. That’s just one of many examples of the ways in which my Deaf life has been improved by these instant and global connections.

However. I have another something to tell you.

I have a very good and very sensible friend, who has done something that seems less good and sensible than usual. He has been on a blind date, and it has all gone very nicely indeed. And then, the killer blow; he has befriended her on Facebook…

Suddenly, he is constantly checking Facebook bloody Messenger. Not because he gets a notification – although he also regularly checks for her name in his ‘likes’ – but to see if she’s been online recently. It’s a rollercoaster, to say the least…

“I posted a photo and she came online two minutes later! She must be FOLLOWING me and looking EVERY TIME I post!” This euphoria doesn’t last long. It slowly fades to despair over the next few hours, during which he notes she has been online several times and neither ‘liked’ nor ‘commented’ on his update.

Or; “She hasn’t been online tonight. She hasn’t checked in to anywhere. Do you think she’s on a date?” I don’t know. I don’t care. But you, buddy, have gone somewhere troubled, and I care about that.

Now, he and I have been friends for a very long time. We have been through many troublesome things together, including shellsuits, Tamagotchis and that time I thought it would be a good idea to take a shopping trolley home, instead of a taxi. And, yes, we are both Deaf, so we’re fairly good at being blunt with each other (“You look like a melted Ninja Turtle”).

But, partly because I know how hard he finds face-to-face conversations with hearing girls, I can’t quite bring myself to hit him with the “Maybe she’s just not that into you?” thing. If she was, surely she would actively connect with you – whether that’s through ‘liking’ pictures of your shoes/food/face, or through texting you, or through turning up on your doorstep wearing nothing but a bobble hat and a hopeful grin. Whatever floats your flirting boats, kids.

Also, if I try, he will point to one of several totally abstract things she has posted; convinced they are a secret message to him, if he can only work it out.

And that’s a big problem with social media, particularly for those of us who are Deaf. It is a whole other way of communicating, instantly, with EVERYONE. Before all this, conversations were held and finished in person – there wasn’t a constant waiting game, wondering when the next comment will come. You didn’t have to second-guess what the other person was thinking, because they were right there in front of you.

Even if this ‘secret declarations’ theory is true, it sounds exhausting. She’ll post about bananas being awesome. He eats bananas sometimes, so he thinks it’s a message to him. I would rather eat my feet than a banana and think they’re both certifiable. But he clings to his hopes and, without pinning her down and interrogating her, I can’t genuinely, 100% say that he’s wrong.

Social media is wonderful and awful, for everyone, not just Deaf people. But, it can mean more to us. It can become a lifeline, but it can also drag you under. I reckon we should enjoy the filters and masks, but don’t forget that’s what they are.

Real life, even if it’s hard, is real. It’s where you find people, not their shadows.

I’m fairly sure I had a big, meaningful point to make about this. But I haven’t checked Twitter for, like, half an hour, so… #Laterz

Emily Howlett is a regular writer for this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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