Tweet and be damned
Ten days before Christmas a toddler drowned in a backyard pool somewhere in the US. It was tragic yet unremarkable among other all-too-familiar stories except for one detail: his mother tweeted his death.
This week Twitter was once more buzzing as the bizarre death of Johnson & Johnson heiress, Casey Johnson, was announced via the tweets of her fiancée, television personality Tila Tequila.
Celebrity oddities notwithstanding, the question du jour seems to be whether Twitter is an inappropriate platform for expressions of grief?
What I ask is this: Why not?
Stories such as this are no longer merely the cautionary statement at the heart of a dystopian science-fiction tale. They’re real, and the surrounding outrage marks the scrabbling attempts we are making to determine ways for our morality to keep pace with a technology which many fear is outrunning it.
In the immediate aftermath of the toddler drowning incident, one tweeter - Madison McGraw - wanted to verify that the tweets were real; that a child really had drowned. Nothing wrong with that.
In the age of insta-celebrity we wonder to what lengths people will go to get on the star radar. Unfortunately this is one of Twitter’s intrinsic image problems and the reason it is seen by many as an unacceptable platform for the expression of deeper human emotions and events.
Twitter can credit its double-quick rise to the publicity afforded by early adopters with a ready-made fan base. Ashton Kutcher, John Mayer anyone? From the outset Twitter was tagged as a vehicle for the attention seeking, narcissistic B-lister. That’s the sting in Twitter’s tale for anyone wanting to use it differently – which plenty of people do.
Twitter has morphed into something unlike what many of us initially anticipated. In fact, today a tweep of mine passed on this piece from the New York Times, published on the first day of this year. In ‘Why Twitter Will Endure’ David Carr makes his case rather eloquently and counters the usual criticisms with aplomb.
But then, he didn’t have to convince me. I had already mustered my defences after David Dale declared the week before that, “Twittering is For Boring Old Farts”. Call me what you will but I haven’t taken my cues from Ruby Rose for a while now.
When I first started using Twitter I decided it was only relevant for people who had something to sell - either spin doctors trying to start a ‘viral buzz’ - or those for whom it was imperative that they create a profile in the new media to assist their career trajectory. In other words, those with a barrow to push who would be doing similar stuff in traditional media anyway. Of course these are still valid, practical and common uses of Twitter but I think my original assessment missed the “social” part of the term “social media”.
After all, Twitter is an unusual place to “socialize”. It is populated by a diverse bunch. There are the newsmongers, the cool kids, the technogeeks (who may have moved on by now – I wouldn’t know I’m not one of them). But there are also lots of “real” people. Especially the kind who fall firmly into my cohort - mums and dads.
I belong to a group which has been written about quite a bit over the past year. I’m a mum, I blog and I tweet. (And you can almost hear the collective groan: “Again with the mummy-bloggers”.)
But there must be a reason why this particular social group has made a noticeable stamp on a landscape which is, on the surface at least, seemingly incompatible with them.
Is social networking not the domain of teenagers and laptop geeks? Well, since mums went bananas on Facebook - so much so that one of our local telecommunications companies based an advertising campaign around it - they have claimed the platform as relevant for them. But why?
I think it’s because social media such as Facebook and, possibly even more so, Twitter, fit perfectly with the domestic routine. Just as soap operas of old - with their slow-moving, repetitive narratives - were made to mirror and harmonise with the disruptions of domestic work, so too does social media.
Just put baby down for a nap? You’ve got time to jump online, say hi to your tweeps and share a slice of your life. “Finally got Ella to sleep. Shattered. Am going to nap too.” This tweet, within a sympathetic community such as the one you can create with the judicious use of Twitter, may garner responses such as, “Sleep tight.” Or, “You have to rest. I always napped when mine were babies.” Or, “You doing okay babe?” It’s community writ small - 140 characters to be exact - but community nonetheless.
And within these Twitter communities the minutiae of domestic life is recorded in fine detail. But it’s one of the main criticisms too: “Who wants to know what you had for dinner?”
Actually, lots of people. Food tweets in my online community get some of the best responses. Recipe sharing ensues or perhaps just a kind word about your culinary efforts.
What I don’t understand is the outrage about what gets tweeted. Since when are we above the expression of mundanity? The big moments, the life-changing experiences - in real life and online - are few and far between. It’s the trivial and the everyday which ties them all together.
Ask a non-Twitterer - lets say a mum for the sake of this argument - what she talks about to her best friend when they meet for coffee or chat on the phone. Refer to the above list - partners, kids, in-laws, school, food and so on. The platform may be different but the function remains the same - we share our stories, banal as they often are.
I have written before about what I believe to be one of Twitter’s most interesting and compelling functions: the creation of the human narrative. Storytelling is an ancient human ritual and it’s happening on Twitter whether you like it or not.
“But why not do it in real life with real people?” the critics ask. There are a few reasons. Scratch any modern day, first-world, stay-at-home mum and it would not be unusual to find a woman living in isolation, apart from her former working identity and the social cache - however minimal - it may have brought her.
When I was home with two babies (pre-Twitter) I would phone my sister - who also had two babies and lived in another city - and talk for hours. I didn’t see her much in real life during those years but our phone calls saved our sanity.
And so we return to the mum tweeting her son’s death. What exactly is the problem? Given that she tweeted while her son was being attended to by medical personnel where exactly is the “immorality” which is implied by the level of apparent outrage at event? Just because you or I may not do the same in similar circumstances does not make it inherently wrong. This mum reached out to her community in a way which felt natural and ‘right’ to her.
Reaching out to community - no matter in which form it exists - is surely one of the cornerstones of humanity. If isolation and insularity are hallmarks of the dystopian future we so fear, how is modern communication an indication of this? I don’t know of anyone who uses Twitter who does not also have flesh and blood contact with real people - the apparent upper echelon in the hierarchy of social interaction in the new world order. Their online community is an adjunct to their other ones.
But even for those who I have seen unkindly termed as “blogging shut-ins”, social media relationships may be the most meaningful relationships they have. The hurt, the displaced, the damaged - in the past these may have been the agoraphobic, the hermit, the recluse. Do we now begrudge them the opportunity to express themselves?
In the words of no-one in particular, isn’t it time we just Tweet and let Tweet?
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