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Lori Culwell Headshot

Death and Twitter

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Two days ago I stumbled onto the Twitter account of a friend of a friend, and was surprised to see that her last Tweet (posted 45 minutes before I got there) read:

"Please pray like never before my 2 year old fell in the pool."

I sat and stared at it for a moment, wondering if it was some kind of sick joke. Was it possible that the mother of a drowning (or drowned) child could provide a Twitter update?

Three hours passed, and then she started posting photos to memorialize the child.

Yes, I said three hours. All told, that's about four hours of Twitter downtime, during which her toddler drowned in the family pool. Now, I don't know this person, and so I can't begin to know what she's going through. Maybe her Twitter friends are her community and she's reaching out to them for support. Maybe the only way she's going to get through this is by leaning on them, by clinging to habits that make her feel normal in the face of absurdly abnormal circumstances. Within minutes, a site is put up for donations to the family and a series of mourning Re-Tweets begins. The whole thing takes on the dizzying speed of--well, of Twitter.

Meanwhile in Twitter land, this sequence of events strikes a few other people as strange. Other users start calling for confirmation of the child's death, and this starts an all-out Twitter war, complete with name-calling, accusations of heartlessness, threats, and the removal of the original Tweets of the child's death. The story turns out to be true, but the accusers will not apologize for wanting to simply verify the facts, and then they take it one step further, accusing the mother of being so involved in Twitter that she neglected to notice her child dangerously close to the pool. Emotions run high, and more than ever, 140 characters turns out to be a woefully inadequate amount of space to encompass real emotions like grief, anger, and disbelief. No one will back down. The Twitter moms are out in force, and they are crucifying the original accuser, crying cyberbullying and asking for her to be banned from Twitter. Throughout what is still an unfolding saga, I find myself wondering "Is this any of my business?"

Sadly, I've experienced this intersection of death and technology several times, and it always strikes me as clumsy and inappropriate. When my own mother became ill and died suddenly in 2003, I sent a series of "group" type emails because I was too exhausted to keep giving everyone the same update over and over. When she passed away, I sent out one final email that morning, just so people would know. Of course, this was 2003--before Facebook, and Twitter, and the increased immediacy of experience that has us posting pictures of babies mere moments after their births. Because my mother considered too much information about people's private lives to be uncivilized, I know I would not have used these highly public forums to discuss her death. My mother was a big believer in manners, and civility, and giving people in distress a proper amount of space, which I guess is why I can't quite get my head around an open discussion of a two year old's death, right there on Twitter. Call me old-fashioned, but isn't Twitter the place for things like "I burned dinner" or "I'm at a Depeche Mode concert?"

Speaking of technology and death, let's talk about my friend's Nintendo Wii. Earlier this year, my friend's boyfriend took his own life--a tragedy that I will not try to describe out of respect for everyone involved. I will concede that after this horrific event, I was glad that my friend was on Facebook just so she could get moral support from everyone in her network, though I say this with the caveat that she never actually mentioned the death itself or any of the details in this highly public forum.

But, the Wii. The Wii that they bought together, and that he programmed, and that she doesn't know how to change. The Wii that now, when she turns it on, says things like "Edward hasn't worked out in awhile--- you should remind him! " or "It's almost Edward's birthday! Maybe you should throw him a surprise party!" We laugh about this, but it's still sad, like the emails of four now-dead people in my address book that I can't quite bring myself to erase.

The question that keeps occurring to me since I stumbled upon that ill-fated Twitter message, and that I keep coming back to is: is this what happens when the realities of life and death are filtered through (clearly inadequate) technological means? Is immediacy of experience contributing to a total lack of civility?