In Defense of Twittering During Tragedy

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Yesterday, I noticed blogs lighting up as they passed along the story of a mother supposedly twittering while her son drowned and the massive backlash that followed including instant accusations of parental neglect.

The story sounded too good to be true, the kind of stuff people write in their heads and hold in draft mode until the first opportunity presents itself to publish it, so I didn’t read the specifics until this morning at ABC News. As an avid twitter user myself and someone used to sharing information about my life with friends online for 10+ years, I was astounded at the amount of negative attention the mother, Shellie Ross was (and still is) receiving from the story. 

I’m someone in a similar position who posted to twitter (while in my hospital bed) just a few hours after my initial diagnosis of having a large brain tumor, and I have to say it was specifically so I could let my immediate friends and family that follow me on twitter know exactly what was going on as soon as possible. Posting to twitter meant I didn’t have to do a dreaded phone call to dozens of people immediately after hearing my diagnosis, and for me it was both a time saving way to get the word out as well as the easiest way to communicate while I was exhausted and in and out of consciousness in the hospital.

The obvious sticking point in many stories about this drowning incident seems to be about new media and old. No one is surprised at frantic cell phone calls in a hospital waiting room, but apparently button mashing on a cellphone to alert friends via text to twitter is a surprise, simply because it is new.

What happened was a tragedy plain and simple. The family was doing things in the backyard, the pool gate didn’t get closed, and an accident occurred. Some time after (reports vary but it looks like about half an hour after paramedics arrived) she updated her friends and family and asked them to pray for her son. This could have been on the trip to the hospital, as she was leaving home, or when she first arrived. Five hours later he was pronounced dead, and she updated her friends and family with the terrible news. 

I myself posted to twitter five times from the hospital after my initial tweet, bringing people up to speed as I learned more. Half a day after I settled in at home I wrote a blog post further explaining it. I did this again to fill friends in and so I didn’t have to relay the story 1,000 times later. I was commended a lot privately and publicly for being open and honest and sharing my story but to be frank I really don’t know of any other way to be, this is just naturally the easiest way to communicate with friends and (some) family.

Since my parents weren’t tuned into twitter, I did have to call them on that first day, and each day there after. In the end when I got home, I had to call about a dozen friends and family members that also aren’t aware of my twitter account (or even what twitter is), and I have to say those were some of the most difficult calls to make, to drop bad news on happy friends and family. It was hours of work too, to explain and answer questions over the phone.

Twitter is a great tool for personal broadcast to a vast set of friends and family and it’s quickly turning into a new default communication medium for the online world. It can certainly be distracting in the face of day-to-day cubicle work, but in this specific case it appears certainly to me that it had nothing to do with the death and was actually helpful at alerting friends to the accident and later informing them of the tragedy, and mirrors my own use of the service in a vaguely similar situation.

29 Comments

  • I did the same – posted the news to twitter when my wife passed away six months ago. I saw nothing wrong with it.

  • I think the negative reaction was a “Mom” thing–it constantly amazes me how much flack internet moms get for the way they do things. Apparently by tweeting, she was not grieving her child properly.

  • I think Twitter has an unwarranted perception of frivolity attached to it, as mainstream media tends to focus less on its community-building aspect, and more on the “OMG @APLUSK JUST POSTED PICS OF DEMI BENDING OVER” factor.
    So while those of us in the Twitter community see this as a reasonable way for one of our own to ask for support, to the rest of the world, she might has well as made the announcement via “Farmville.”
    My heart goes out to her and her family.

  • Yeah, crazy that they are berating her for this; when I first saw your twitter update about this, I hadn’t heard the news and though what? some woman was twittering while her son was in the tub or something? But when I read the story it was obvious she was just reaching out to her friends and family after the tragedy occurred.
    I think it’s the people who don’t understand modern technology/means of communication that are probably raising the stink about this. If she were calling the same people she twittered to from a hospital pay phone or even from her cell phone nobody would think twice about it.

  • When I was in my car accident, I found out that there was a short period of time that my parents were at the hospital but not allowed back into my room, until my mom called my cell phone and told me and I asked to have them sent back. Which of course scared them half to death… they didn’t know if they were being kept out because I suddenly wasn’t okay. Had I been in their shoes, I can imagine myself Twittering to do something, anything, to distract me, to cope with the fear, and to let people know. And so that I would have the comfort of knowing that peoples’ thoughts were with me, even if I couldn’t read their replies for hours.

  • Interesting. I too noticed the negativity and all I could think of was poor woman, how devastated she would be; only to then have to deal with the flak.
    Perhaps it didn’t occur to folks that she may have just been reaching out for support from her social group. Isn’t that what it’s about anyway? The good and the bad?

  • Interesting indeed. When my dad died in 2002, I blogged about it the same day. Just a one-liner (so I guess it counts as some kinda Twitter update), but it was definitely important to me to get the info out via that medium – partly to let my friends know, most of whom I communicated with mainly online, and also because my blog was an important part of my life. As no doubt Twitter is to this woman.
    Tho I can also sort of “see” that someone who’s not so digitally minded may find it strange that one would think of tweeting so early on after tragedy hits.
    Some people don’t understand how some other people work, news at eleven, or some such snark.

  • I saw this whole thing unfolding real-time (Shellie Ross is a friend-of-a-friend on Twitter).
    I had no reason to doubt that she had just lost her child and was devastated.
    There was one person, however, who within minutes of the story breaking began a crusade to “verify” and later vilify the mom in the original story. Most if not all of this has been pushed to the forefront by her actions, which I feel to be heartless and cruel. She began with “I can’t find on the news that a kid has drowned, maybe somebody is scamming for donations,” and by the next morning went to “what a horrible mom, using twitter instead of watching her child!” She defends anything and everything she has done with ‘if (the mom) didn’t want the publicity she shouldn’t have used twitter.’
    I’m sure she is enjoying every minute of the limelight she has received.
    Twitter is new, and it’s a very quick way to spread information to your family and friends, the same way email ten years ago and the telephone fifty years ago were also new. Sadly, being cruel to other people is as old as the hills, we just have new ways of spreading it around.

  • I think the negative reaction comes from only knowing half the story. The first I heard of this was in the BoingBoing post about your post (http://www.boingboing.net/2009/12/18/in-defense-of-twitte.html).
    Look at the bare-bones wording: “a mother who tweeted the drowning death of her son, as it was happening.” The image that comes to mind is of a mother casually playing with her cell phone while her son flails and drowns in the pool. That’s not what happened, of course, but some people make up their minds pretty quickly.
    As information-transfer gets more and more compressed (thanks in part to services such as Twitter, of course), it becomes more and more difficult to get the whole story before forming a judgment.

  • Glad to see you and others standing up for the medium known as Twitter, Matt. Because that’s really what it is: a medium for communication. And we should be able to use it for any sort of communication.

  • Hmm.. Yeah, poor lady. I remember when my wife needed to be rushed to the hospital for gall bladder problems – although we didn’t, at the time, know *what* was wrong – I tweeted about it immediately, which both got back a lot of support from my friends, but also told my boss (who was following me on twitter) that I wouldn’t be in for work the next day!
    Later on, I had to call her parents and mine and explain what was happening – it’s really a lot easier when you’re worried to shoot out a tweet and let it go.

  • A work acquaintance recently tweeted his young daughter’s trip to the hospital and her diagnosis. I’m not in his inner circle, so I wouldn’t have heard about it otherwise. Because I did, I was able to tell my husband, who has the same condition. He called the fellow up and was able to reassure him quite a bit.
    On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be informed of something terrible happening to a family member through Twitter. So I can see the ups and downs of this sort of mass communication.

  • Maybe people are taking ‘in the middle’ as too exact?
    As in ‘Shouldn’t she have called 911 first? Or ridden in the ambulance..’ type things… I’ll admit, based on the headlines, my initial vision was ‘OMG, my son just fell in the pool’… ‘Calling 911’…. etc etc.

  • I think people were reacting to the timeline. The woman’s older son called 911 something like two minutes after she’d Tweeted something, so people assumed she was on Twitter while her youngest son was dying in the pool. The whole thing is just awful, however it happened.

  • I have been the paramedic on pediatric drownings and i can tell you that there was nothing for her to do once the emergency crews arrived. A situation like that is a dread-filled whole-in-time which lasts forever. I have heard some very silly things said by parents on those scenes…Does it matter?
    I hope that this mother was able to recieve the support that she needed. I wish some of my patient’s parents were able to use as simple a method of reaching-out for help. The timing of and the content of those tweets seem fine to me.

  • The Internet is such a great way to keep people informed of important events, especially upsetting ones. Whether it’s email, Facebook, Twitter or whatever, the Internet is how we communicate now, and is usually easier than one-on-one. There is even an entire website that provides free blogs for patients with serious illnesses to keep their families and friends updated http://www.caringbridge.org/ – many of the cancer and hematology patients that we work with depend on their Caring Bridge sites.

  • I recently posted about my father’s death on Facebook for all the reasons you mentioned here, Matt. I didn’t want to tell everyone in person. I knew that my friends were concerned and I knew that they would be afraid to ask, “So, how’s your Dad?” They could just skip right to supporting me and that’s exactly what they did. I couldn’t ask for a better group of friends though I agonized about whether I should be using my status update to post such a thing.
    Some people do post and tweet things that make me go, “whoa! Boundaries!” but I don’t think those people need the extra ridicule. Not unless they’re Sarah Palin or Joe Lieberman….

  • my facebook is my life update!
    Twitter isn’t far behind.

  • This story has finally demonstrated a reason for me to consider using Twitter–I have been asking “what’s the point” for so long. The problems inherent in the character limitation may have been partly to blame for the backlash this poor woman received… the wording of it was misleading, though unintentional.
    Tweeting because everyone does is stupid and a waste of time and bandwidth, using it as a communication tool in this way is smart, helpful and gets the support there much quicker. It will never be a default communications tool for me, but at least now I have a reason to consider it.

  • The assumption on the part of most is that she was doing it *as* the drowning was happening. That seems pretty far-fetched, I think, but people rarely take the time to think through things they hear with attention to logic.
    In general, tweeting during an emergency would be a bad way to get help, if there were other, surer ways. That said, if twitter was all you had (the electronic version of shouting “help” in a crowd), why not?
    Like virtually all technology, it is perceived by the majority as being in some way evil ~ blame, the Romantics, particularly Mary Shelley; I do. The fact is, the Mom used twitter for what it does best: a personal, directed broadcast to those who would be most interested in the news.

  • I updated my facebook status while sitting in the hospital when my daughter had an almost 105 degree fever. As a parent, you can’t freak out about your kid’s health in front of them, so it was incredibly helpful for me to be able to say online that I was, well, freaking out and get support from my friends. One of my friends actually called me at 2 am while I was in an examination room and offered to come down and keep me company. So I can’t fault that woman at all, and my heart goes out to her.

  • I’d posted on my blog immediately after my husband died three years ago, and twittered my sister’s death from cancer the following year. In both cases it spared me having to deal with a ton of letters and phone calls that I just wasn’t up to making at the time — though to be honest I think I was just going on autopilot at that point. These were things (blogging especially) that I was extremely used to doing; I didn’t give it a second thought because they were already part of my daily routine, and had been an automatic focal point of my life for years. I wonder if anyone for whom that isn’t the case can really understand that, maybe it’s an “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” type of thing.
    There is no right or wrong predetermined way to respond to any grief — there is only whatever the hell you need to do, when you need to do it. No one else can figure out what that is for us, and we often can’t know ourselves until it happens. Whatever it is, as long as it keeps us from putting the gun to our head and getting us from one day to the next, then no one has ANY right to say otherwise.

  • Clearly, these are people who have less than average gray matter up there. It’s not like she tweeted BEFORE she called the paramedics. I would have done the same. And she probably posted that photo after he died so her Twitter followers would know the outcome of the accident, after she’d asked them to pray for her.
    And I do think, if it had been a man, none of this idiocy would have happened. Mom is supposed to break down into shaking tears and babbling at the death of a child (like in the movies), and Dad’s supposed to be the strong one who picks up the phone and calls all the relatives (like in the movies) while Eldest Son consoles Mom (like in the movies). The second a woman emerges like the Strong One, “she’s not grieving properly”.

  • As other commenters have noted, my personal problem with this coverage is the headline – “Mom Twitters Son’s Tragic Death” – makes it sound as if she described his drowning in 140 characters or less. If she had been on the phone, this wouldn’t be a headline and it wouldn’t be a story. If she had blogged about his death, even in real time and in one line, I STILL don’t think this would have been a story. At least not today – it might have been a story 3-5 years ago, when blogs were the newest social media (according to the old media).
    Personally, I can imagine tweeting in this sort of situation, using Twitter simply to shout into the void, to keep myself from completely breaking down while in a waiting room without news. As Ruki noted, if you can’t panic in person (or even if you can) Twitter can act as another outlet for those overwhelming emotions. You do not necessarily take other people’s reactions to your words into consideration.

  • this is, potentially, one of the best defenses of a practice that, on its surface, appears to be inappropriate. Viewing it from the side of someone who has used it similarly, and to hear about how it helped, totally changed my initial reaction. Perhaps the stigma of texting while driving, a stigma I support and propagate, is starting to bleed over in strange ways.

  • Yes. Frankly, part of the reason is that “Twitter” is an annoying name.
    It kept me from trying the service for a very long time. Now I love it, but still feel vaguely stupid talking about Twitter feeds, tweeting, etc.

  • The story’s been misreported in a lot of media outlets. The mom has not just been criticized for posting as the child was being treated at the hospital. She’s been criticized for posting 74 updates to Twitter during that day up to the child’s drowning, including as many as five during the five minute period in which it was occurring.
    It seems exceptionally cruel to criticize her after the tragedy, but the public nature of her Twitter use — she had 5,000 followers — brings with it a lot of attention. That’s one of the downsides of letting so many people in to your life with social media or blogs.
    Even without Twitter, parents sometimes come under harsh criticism after a child dies in potentially neglectful circumstances, such as a drowning or a hot-car tragedy.

  • I think your sub-head nails the problem. At the very least, if it had been the boy’s father, the headlines would have been written differently.

  • One thing I’ve noticed is that people have very strong emotional reactions about how they hear this type of family news.
    The example that comes to mind is how my family handled my father’s heart bypass surgery earlier this year, versus how a friend of mine’s family is handling a crisis with my friend’s grandfather right now.
    When my father had his surgery, my stepmom sent an e-mail to the entire extended family, explaining that his (routine) doctor’s appointment found a partial blockage, and that he would be having surgery. As the situation progressed, she would call her cousins wife (which was a local call) and they would use the same e-mail to forward the information to the rest of the family. Whenever anyone visited the hospital, or spoke to either my dad or stepmom over the phone, they’d reply to that group e-mail, sending their new information to the whole group. End result, my stepmom (who was closest to the situation) sent one e-mail, and only had to explain each update once, and the information was quickly communicated to everyone who was interested, without any corrupted data from being passed on third and fourth hand.
    My friend was horrified by this. In her family, there was a lot of status involved in who got called first, and the importance of hearing the information directly. She interpreted this situation as giving the cousin’s wife (who sent the e-mail updates) more status than me or my brother (the kids of the my father, the person actually sick.) She also didn’t understand that I trusted the process, as to her mind, getting the information through e-mail updates from the extended family was inherently unreliable.
    Her grandfather is now sick, and in the hospital, and her family is constantly calling each other, trying to get updates, and repeating the same information over and over, with great resentment building about who is called first versus who is called later.
    To my mind, her family is nuts to use such an inefficient way of spreading the information, an to place extra stress on the relatives closer to the situation to not just inform the rest of the family, but to do so in a way that doesn’t lead to resentment.
    But when people here news about this sort of situation, where a mother (sensibly to my mind) uses technology to keep friends an family updated in an efficient way, they don’t just think about whether twitter is or isn’t appropriate. They also bring their own ideas about how information should be shared, and how family dynamics should be honored.

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