Thursday, August 27, 2009

Matters of Life and Twitter

Recently an underemployed "analytics" firm looked at Twitter usage and announced via press release that 40% of tweets are "pointless babble." Stephen Fry expressed his disappointment on his blog that the number was so low:
I would have hoped 100% of Twitter was fully free of earnestness, usefulness and commercial intent. (Link)
Many of the people I follow on Twitter are inveterate wisenheimers, who have spent months (or years) chiding, mocking, and bitterly assailing those who attempt use the service for earnest, useful purposes.

This past January, however, Josh Hopkins, a popular (and often profane) member of the Favrd comedy crowd interrupted his flow of jokes with something unexpected.
Deficits could force the post office to continue reading your dirty magazines and delivering the rest of your mail to your neighbor. (Link)
Turns out, pregnant women don't want their body mass index calculated. God. Obese people can be so rude. (Link)
were followed by
On the way to the hospital. Baby and mom aren't doing so well. May deliver today. More details to come. (Link)
and shortly thereafter
Getting transported to NICU for C-section immediately. Baby has a heart defect. Not sure what's going to happen. I'll update after delivery. (Link)
Finally, a few hours later, just:
Lucy Kate Hopkins (Link)
Lucy is 2lbs. 1.5oz. & 13 1/2 in. Mom and baby are okay. Thank you everyone. You guys are so awesome. (Link)
Lucy Kate Hopkins was born 10 weeks premature, with two congenital heart defects and Trisomy 21 (Down's Syndrome). She remained in the hospital for 75 days before Josh and his wife could bring her home.

When my own son was born he spent the first hour of his life in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) while they monitored his oxygen levels. Christa was being sewn up following the unplanned C-section, and I stood there by myself, watching my little boy attached to monitors and machines, unable to pick him up and hold him to me. The NICU was a lonely and frightening place, even knowing that he was going to be fine soon.

Contrast that with a baby like Lucy Kate, for whom the first few hours (or days) offer no easy assurances of survival. And yet Josh, the father, took the time to tap out a few words to a thousand strangers with whom he had previously shared little more than 140-character poop and dick jokes.

"Thank you everyone. You guys are so awesome."

This in response to the dozens (possibly hundreds) of heartfelt and humorous Twitter replies and messages he had received on his mobile device from this virtual community in support of him and his family during the early hours of their ordeal.

The NYT this week published a story about parents who suffer from PTSD following their experiences in the NICU with their premature infants. It quotes from Vicki Forman's new book, This Lovely Life. In it she writes “From the moment my twins were born, I saw potential for tragedy wherever I turned. It would be years before I stopped thinking that way.”

As he had before his NICU experience, Josh Hopkins saw potential humor wherever he turned, and shared it with the audience in his pocket.
Lucy weighs 2lbs. 11oz. today. I'm concerned about her weight gain. I think the Skittles I've secretly been feeding her are making her fat. (Link)
Looking at all the tubes, syringes and meth on the kitchen countertop, you would think we were running a meth lab instead of feeding a baby. (Link)
I don't know Josh Hopkins. I can't claim to know the many ways in which Lucy's health challenges and her time in the hospital have affected him or his wife. I do imagine that were their story to be introduced into the maelstrom of bullshit and bloviation that passes for "mainstream" discourse on television and Op-Ed columns and the internet, Josh would be accused of all manner of transgressions of decency, mental health, common sense, and taste (the latter I expect he would wear proudly), for sharing his experience in this way using something as public and "pointless" as Twitter.

And what interests me is not just Josh's story, but the experience of the 3000+ of his Twitter followers who have been "listening in" over the past week as Lucy has gone back into the hospital for heart surgery. In the middle of our days we've received updates of Lucy being placed on heart bypass, of her sternum being closed, of her arms and legs wiggling for the first time after sedation, of her being taken off the respirator, then back on again.

And of course Josh has had time to Twitter, because the experience of a family member in the hospital is nothing but endless stretches of time, waiting in an outer room, "showering" in restroom sinks, being unable to contribute in any meaningful way.
My wife and I finally ate burritos. I imagine it was like watching two lions attack a pack of zebras on the Discovery Channel. (Link)
Sleeping in the waiting room is the best sleep I've never gotten. (Link)
And using a different account, Josh is Twittering in the voice of Lucy:
Still not feeling well. My right lung is partially collapsed, but the doctors are taking care of me. I can't wait to wake up and play soon! (Link)
I'm starting to be more awake now. I tried to cry out but I couldn't, so my Daddy sang to me to keep me calm. (Link)
Again, the "friends" in Josh's pocket have responded to him, with messages of encouragement and more. A couple of folks helped manage donations to the family through Josh's Amazon Wish List, or cash donations through PayPal. Someone else thought to set up a special link to the new book Twitter Wit--featuring several contributions by Josh (and one by me)--through which a portion of each purchase would be given to Josh's family.

Myself, I feel paralyzed when trying to put something meaningful into a Twitter-sized burst of text to someone I don't really know who's sitting scared shitless in a hospital as his five-month-old is undergoing open heart surgery. Even though it's clear from Josh's tweets that the encouragement matters. And that it's okay if what you write is trite or if someone's said it before, and said it better than you.

But my own emotional and superegotistical roadblocks have kept me from writing much of anything to Josh, or to @AinsleyofAttack when her mother died, or to @Moltz as he sat alone reading Twitter messages while his wife was undergoing her double mastectomy in the wake of her breast cancer diagnosis. Then again I'm also the asshole who doesn't leave birthday wishes on people's Facebook walls.

Looking at my Facebook news feed yesterday, it was clogged from top to bottom with people's reflections on the death of Ted Kennedy--some thoughtful, some emotional, some with links to words or video from elsewhere. That's a fair amount of emotional and attentional bandwidth for someone none of these people personally knew.

Kottke blogged last week about the coming "abundance of death", in which the rate at which someone we are aware of (the famous and the micro-famous) will die will increase to a daily (or more than daily) event. The day will come sooner than that when death, tragedy, or life-threatening illness will affect the lives of someone we "know" on our digital social networks.

What will it mean to our psyches and emotional consciousness to have this persistent window into the hardships of so many individuals in something approximating "real time"? To receive up-to-the-minute updates of difficult labors, car accidents, families trapped in attics as floodwaters rise, kids dying of gunshot wounds, parents with Alzheimer's slowly slipping away? Tiny Lucy's journey has occupied a fair amount of my emotional space this week (and the time it has taken to write these 1500 words).

Then again, it doesn't fucking matter how hard it is for me to peer through these tiny, text-based windows into the suffering of others from the vantage point of my life (and its privilege and blessings).

What matters--to Josh, or to anyone who posts a Twitter message or Facebook status from a place of loneliness, pain, or fear--is the window out.


Give some money to Josh and his family. You can follow Josh or Lucy on Twitter. Then, if you still feel like it, you can buy the Twitter Wit book through the special link. It's pretty funny. I show up on page 107.


UPDATE: (September 14, 2009) Lucy Kate's progress is being shared on her own blog. Josh is raising money for the Indiana Down Syndrome Foundation in Lucy Kate's name.


Unknown said...

60% is a surprisingly good percentage of tweets that must be more valuable than "pointless." Especially considering the percentage of babble on broadcast TV or in general conversation.
Thanks for the thoughtful and moving addition to the conversation, Chris.
I, for one, am glad you used more than 140 characters for this post.

Victoria Marinelli said...

That was beautiful, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I love what you've done here.

Unknown said...

Lovely. And I'm crying again. Anyone who thinks Twitter is pointless has never felt the love from this particular subset of witty people. We also loved and supported califmom while her husband underwent cancer treatment and oh so many more. We also know that many times, laughter IS the best medicine. Love again to Josh, his wife and little Lucy Kate.

tb said...

Loved reading this, Chris, thanks.

frostinglickr said...

Thanks for this. It's hard to sum up Twitter to those who think it is about telling everyone what they had for lunch that day. Stories like the story of Josh define what Twitter has become. Funny, but with heart.

Michael Rose said...

Well considered and well said.

Leightongirl said...

Brilliant post. Thanks for the mention.