Some might say the worst part of sadness is the fear of burdening others with your emotions. But Melissa Broder has 218,000 Twitter followers who stick around through 140-character bursts of her bruises, regrets and anxieties. Actually, that’s most likely the reason they follow her.

Broder recently outed herself as the personality behind @SoSadToday in advance of publishing a personal essay collection by the same name. But Broder is far from alone on "Sad Twitter" -- a genre ranging from dark self-deprecation to even darker self-deprecation with a dash of misanthropy thrown in for good measure.

Presumably, some of Sad Twitter consists of users that are dealing with real mental health issues with a large audience among those who don’t. So, does self-deprecating humor make light of these issues when it “entertains” others, or is it a genuinely helpful form of self-expression?

James Pennebaker is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and has extensively studied the effect of writing about trauma and negative experiences on the ability to heal from them. When his book "Writing to Heal" was published in 2004, Twitter was still two years from its launch.

I asked him if the therapeutic aspects of expressive writing extend to the internet. “Until a couple of years ago, I would have said 'no, it doesn’t',” Pennebaker said.

In an offline, informal group that mixes people who have had an upsetting experience with those that have not, the destiny of the group depends upon the response to whatever confessional sharing occurs. Listening is an opportunity for everyone in the group to feel like they shared a part of the difficult experiences and emotions -- it's retelling. But if the majority of the group responds “I just thought I was going to have fun in this group,” they’ll fall apart, Pennebaker explained.

The beauty of Twitter is that that’s not an issue. Sure, some people may stop following the account, but those who stay do so because they want to stay. They want to be part of the community. But they also don’t want to feel helpless if or when something is really wrong.

@weird_vibes is a grad student whose tweets fit solidly within Sad Twitter. She tweets about visits to her psychologist, but also the ups and downs of being a feeling human:

She explains that, as she is semi-anonymous, she switches back and forth between herself and her struggles and more of a “character” or glib self-parody. “It’s not always clear to me which one is happening," she said.

Sometimes she gets direct messages on Twitter from people she doesn’t know reaching out to see if she’s ok. She theorizes that being able to send those messages allows people to feel less helpless when the character ends and the vulnerable human begins. “The most popular people on twitter are constantly crossing back and forth between that line,” she said.

In this way, Sad Twitter can be the mixed support group Pennebaker described. Or, in the words of @weird_vibes, a communal “whelp” experience.

“If you don't have a sense of humor about it I'm really not sure there is a benefit,” poet Russel Swensen, whose account @scribblymouse has 11,500 followers, said. “These confessions are mediated by our awareness of them.”

To Swensen, the "instant consumption" of reading one’s Twitter feed makes the platform suited to emotional expression. “The overshare is constant but it's also available," he said. "The expectations are lowered as well -- it's 140 characters, no one expects you to thumbnail Sylvia Plath.”

The distance from thought to page is also virtually non-existent and the feedback is in real time. Likes and retweets offer immediate gratification. “You’re skywriting your depression,” says Swensen, into just enough of the void.

He doesn’t personally get a sense of community from Sad Twitter, but he can imagine how others would. To him, it beats other methods of coping. “It's better than sobbing on the phone to someone who asked you to never ever call them again.”


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