AKIE BERMISS: Without a doubt, the internet has invaded every facet of our daily lives. We should have seen it coming, really. Instantaneous information, communication, and organization? Put that together with the over-accessibility that many of us have TO the internet — and what you’ve got is a serious problem. Our social structures are at once crumbling to dust and reinforcing themselves. The possibilities for communication are always changing and always growing. And with that comes the trouble of trying to figure out when we SHOULD communicate — considering that we basically CAN all the time.
Its not unlike when I went away to college and realized that I could eat hamburgers everyday all day long. No one would stop me. No one could keep track. Only I could. At that point you have to make a decision to either live for what you can do — and try to do it all — or to decide what you should do — regardless of what new freedoms you have. I’m an adult now. I CAN stay up all night if I want to. My parents are going to come in my room, tuck me in, and turn out the light. However, I probably should still try to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. Its fun to stay up, yes. But its probably a good idea for to get some sleep.
And so the recent story of Shellie Ross — a twitterer and blogger who lost her son to drowning last week and tweeted off-and-on during the ordeal — is a hard one to swallow. Do we accept the fact that as they rushed to the hospital or were waiting to find out if he’d survive she tweeted to her followers to pray for her son? Do we criticize her for tweeting that he was gone after he’d died? Should she have kept it to herself? Is this something that is too powerful for Twitter? Is personal suffering out of place in the digital age? Can we only commiserate and find solace in the most banal and unchallenging of shared grievances? Or, indeed, if source and legitimacy of the “tweets” (silly though the word sounds now) comes not from the platform, but the users — is there nothing that cannot be tweeted on?
For most of us, yes, Twitter is a kind of un-funny joke. We think of it as a toy that teenagers use mostly, and that adults should react to with a healthy dose of disdain. Of course, blogs started out that way. And so did Wikis. And google, youtube, on-demand web-television, and so on. Now they are part of our daily lives. We accept them as sophisticated enough to be dealt with. The problem I have with the anti-twitter stance is this: who out there is writing four page letters back and forth? When was the last time any of us read a novel (that wasn’t Harry Potter) for pleasure and not just for status or because someone famous wrote it? How often do any of us come home from a hard day’s work and crack open a few of the Duino Elegies while we eat our take-out?
Who are we to claim that Twitter is some low-life’s pasttime, then? Show me the uber-literate renaissance people who cannot express themselves in 140-characters or less? The one’s who would most assuredly find it vulgar that we have all stooped so low as to read the thoughts and considerations of those who are not extremely qualified experts! Before them, I will express shame and self-disgust for my Twitter account. For the rest of you, though: get off it. I tweet because I choose to be a part of this new community.
Twitter is like the new local pub, the 21st century country club, the new get-together for the new age. Don’t go out to a bar with your friends, listen to crappy light-rock classics, drink yourself tipsy, and then come home and shake your head at my tweets!
And in that same vein, I defend Ross’ right to tweet as she see’s fit. If she found her community of followers to be the kind of people she’d want to keep posted of her son’s condition and to inform when he’d passed — then let her do so, I say. I dare say if you were following her, if you were in her social circle (even as a passive “follower”), you’d want to know if her son was alive or not. You’d want to send your condolences to her after you know. And you’d want to be part of the support structure that helps her to come through to the other side.
I mean, if you’re not interested: you don’t need to follow her! Its just that simple. There are still personal choices to make. Even when the internet has become a presence in every facet of our lives — from birth to death, from sex to politics, and from the banal to the grave — you still have the choice to go along uninformed. To opt out of the social network. You can still stay at home and grumble in the dark.
But you should remember, should you choose to sign-on and jump into the conversation, that even haters get hated-on out here. And you’ll find all kinds in this realm. Better be ready to alter your idea of what is socially acceptable and what is a faux pas. Its a cliche to note, perhaps, but: times the are a’changing.
ZOË RICE: People react to tragedy in vastly different ways. I can’t presume to imagine what it’s like to lose a child–many if not all parents’ worst-case scenario of all time. So if Shellie Ross derives some comfort somehow from broadcasting her son’s dire accident over the mass internet waves, I won’t judge her for that. And if she flips her lid after receiving criticism, I won’t judge her for that either. Free pass, I say, during what must be a mind-altering time.
But let’s look at these time stamps. At 5:22, Ross is tweeting about her chicken coop. At 5:23, her elder son is calling 911. So whenever Ross finished cleaning her chicken coop, instead of finding out what her 2-year-old was up to, she headed straight for her computer. Here is someone quite obviously Twitter-centric. She has some need for these many people reading her tweets–as evidenced by her interaction with them during the entire incident. But when that need eclipses basic parental responsibility, then yes, something is wrong with that. Ross has released time-stamped evidence that while one son was drowning and another was on the phone with 911, she had no idea where they were. I have no children, but even I know a toddler needs to be watched. Especially if the home has a pool in the back. To be so enamored with the public broadcast nature of Twitter that one rushes to a computer when her son is off somewhere obviously in danger, well, that’s taking a personal interest (perhaps obsession, but there’s not enough evidence to say) too far.
I’ve heard other tales of parental neglect at the hands of social networking. A friend knows a recent single mother who’s going through a depressing time. Her kids tug at her elbows trying to get fed, to have time with their mother, to have their basic needs met, while she sits for hours at facebook, IM screens, and whatever else online gives her solace. I might react the same way in a desperate time, turning to the distraction of communication, games, and whatever happy world might exist somewhere other than where I am. But I don’t have kids yet. If I’m responsible only for myself, then I can hurt only myself. It’s the duty of a parent to put her or his children first. And if they can’t, then it’s their responsibility to ask for help.
So if Twitter is hurting your child, please log off.
MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Hey, Twitter ‘community’: How can you ask each other, ‘What are you doing right now?’ but not want to know when the answer is ‘mourning my dead child’? I mean, if it’s in 140 characters or less, what’s the problem?
Perhaps that’s a little harsh. But really, if Twitter users find it so important to tweet constantly throughout the day that they’ll let their followers know what they’re having for breakfast, what they think about the new George Clooney movie, and what they overheard on line at the bank, then how can draw the line at tweets about things that actually matter?
It can be argued that as the mother of a young child, Shelley Ross should not have been updating her twitter so frequently throughout the day, particularly if it was going to interfere with keeping an eye on her young son (which it may in fact have). That I would agree with. But how many of those who are on Twitter are guilty of doing exactly that? Before you throw stones at someone who is grieving a devastating loss, maybe you should take a close look at the part the internet plays in your own life. How much have you missed while you were Twittering?
Part of the problem is that Twitter is such a new site, and it’s grown so exponentially in a short period of time, that it does not yet have a defined code of conduct. There is nothing preventing couples from sniping back and forth at each other on the site, letting their own personal drama unfold before thousands of people. People update their Twitter accounts from work (even on the Senate floor!), while they’re on the road, when they’re drunk. It’s so easy to go online and type in a brief bon mot or a thoughtless missive at the spur of the moment, and whether or not it’s a message that, if you stopped and thought about it, you would say personally to each and every one of your followers, it’s been delivered to them instantly before you have time to think about it.
While it’s true that a death in the family is an extremely personal event, how can we draw the line between tweeting about that and tweeting about how you’re having trouble finding a cab? After all, no one was scolding people in Iran who were using Twitter to update media outlets during a time of extreme political unrest during elections last January. If nothing is unimportant enough not to tweet, why would anything be too important to tweet?
After all, life is made up of lots of mundane moments as well as times of great hope and great tragedy. Why would you want your followers to know about just the boring, every day stuff? Aren’t some of them supposed to be your friends—your community? If you rely on the internet and especially Twitter, as many do, to make you feel connected to other people throughout your day, why would you keep one of the most defining moments of your life to yourself? And if your Twitter followers don’t want to know that your son died, because that’s somehow too real; too much for them to know about you, even though they’re perfectly happy to hear about your favorite beers, then what’s the point of being connected to each other? The internet doesn’t teach us to keep our lives private. Whether we are ready for the consequences of this new level of connection to each other is another matter.