Does the Medium Matter?
August 13th, 2013

Not to get too ecclesiastical about it, but there is a time and a place for everything.  A bridal shower is no place to discuss marital woes.  Lunch with coworkers is no place to discuss your child’s bout of stomach flu.  We all know these things and take great care (or at least we should) to tailor our content to our audience.  But what of our platform?

If we are amongst friends does it matter if a conversation happens in person, versus over the phone, versus via text, versus email?  These are all usually 1:1 conversations in which the platform is relevant only to the participants.  Nevertheless, there are some conversations that we tend to believe warrant a particular communication vehicle.  As an example, Russell Brand was roundly admonished by the general public for asking Katy Perry for a divorce via text.  So we have some standard for propriety in play within private exchanges, whether or not they involve us.   What about Facebook, then, where private-ish conversations spring out of public-ish posts?  If a conversation starts as an exchange of posts and comments is there a point at which it should be taken out of the group forum?  Further still, what about Twitter, whose purpose from the beginning is to cast a wide net?  Is there a threshold at which a given topic has crossed the line of propriety for a given medium?  Or does the medium matter at all?

I ask these questions because apparently NPR host Scott Simon raised eyebrows last month when tweeting extensively about his mother’s failing health and, ultimately, her death.  Simon has 1.2 million Twitter followers, meaning that he was tweeting to a sizable audience.  The content of the tweets is perhaps what anyone might expect when facing the loss of a parent, his tweets having covered, “Gratitude for her life and love. Nostalgia for her wit and aphorisms. Stress and confusion at the logistics of last-minute flights, paperwork, the interment. Awe at how quickly it all comes and goes,” as explained by the Huffington Post.  But while some (many? most?) of his followers were happy to be included in this chapter of the Simon family’s life, the tweets were also met with naysayers.

“Simon has also caused controversy. Should the end of life, grief and the details of after-death arrangements be tweeted? Was he violating his mother’s privacy? … The reaction from his fans and those who work with the dying for a living, has been varied,” explains HuffPo again.  Yet at the same time grief counselors, hospice workers, and others who work in and study the end of life are crediting Simon with starting a national conversation about a subject that is often taboo.  One hospice blog commented that, “Talking about death is difficult for many. Any mention of death and dying causes some people to cover their eyes and ears. We applaud Scott Simon for telling the story of his mother and her final days in such a public way.”

So which is it?  Is it causing a stir because he wrote about it, or because he wrote about it on Twitter, the same platform that was the venue for Ashton and Demi’s foreplay pics, countless celeb spats,  and myraid other banal minutiae of daily life?  Clearly we don’t find it unilaterally off-putting to write about death.  Joan Dideon’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which explores in depth the death of her husband, John Dunne, was celebrated both in its print and stage versions.  So why the uproar over tweeting a comparable event?  What if Simon had waited six months and documented the experience in a thoughtful essay in Salon or The Atlantic?  Would that have sat better with us?

I wonder if the immediacy of a tweet changes the way we perceive both the message and the person giving it.  Perhaps the real-time nature of Twitter forces us closer to death than if Simon had gained some distance from his mother’s passing.  The feelings he was expressing were the emotions he felt in that exact moment.  The temporal nature of Twitter carries with it, in certain circumstances, a real intimacy that some people may not be comfortable with.  (By contrast, Dideon’s memoir was published nearly two years after Dunne’s passing.)  The thoughts that come in such a moment are raw, fleeting, and rather disorganized.  Sharing that experience with a grieving person is not a light burden to shoulder.

A few months back a friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to this article in the LA Times that explains to people who are prone to foot-in-mouth incidents, how to talk with people who are suffering from illness.  The not-quite-lyrical mantra of the article is this: comfort in, dump out.  The mantra is embodied by an illustration of rings, with the sick person at the center and each ring around it representing people in the life of the sick person.  The sick person should only find love and comfort from those around him or her, should be allowed to vent any pain, sadness, or anger to anyone at any time, and should never be asked to shoulder someone else’s grief over their illness.  Those in the first ring out (spouse, child, parent, etc.) can “dump” on those in a more outer ring, but never on the sick person.  Those in the second ring can only comfort those in the first ring, but can vent their sadness and fears to someone in the third ring.*  It’s so simple it seems obvious, but by virtue of the fact that it is needed, I know that it isn’t.

I bring this up because I think the same goes for death.  Scott Simon is in the first ring outside of his mother.  The loss is principally his and that of any siblings of hers or his.  He should be able (without public outcry) to express his grief in whatever manner suits him.  Given the public forum he chose I think he has to expect that it will generate conversation.  Twitter is not the platform of those seeking privacy.  But I think something can spark discussion without also eliciting denunciation.

Grief is highly personal, but that doesn’t always mean it is highly private.  And we should have the tolerance – especially of a person in grief –  to get right with that.


*In this case a picture is worth 136 words.

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