Six weeks ago I wrote a piece for one of South Africa’s Sunday papers, the Sunday Times, on the role that Twitter plays in the lives of those who use it. “This collective stream of consciousness can be both disarmingly intimate and disconcertingly public,” I wrote. “For those who tweet, Twitter at its heart is about sharing with the imagined other: venting about a bad day, letting on that they’ve just had their heart broken. It’s the emotional equivalent of parading around naked on stage and yet people are happy to do it… Twitter is your agony aunt, your IT guy and your peanut gallery rolled into one.”
But what happens when it goes beyond the bad day at work? What happens when people with messy, complicated lives make that mess and complication public in ways that end up having a very real impact on those in whose timelines the resulting tweets appear? No incident has crystallised this awkward confluence of the private and the public than the drama that ensued in the wake of Friday night’s tweeted suicide threats.
Let me be upfront here. Because I’ve written about the impact of Twitter on relationships, I was asked to write an analysis of the incident and its implications. At the same time, I am very aware of the ethical question marks around writing about the anguish of somebody who clearly has serious psychological problems. Having lived with depression since childhood, I know only too well the temptation to use Twitter as an emotional crutch and I empathise with those who tweet their distress (and who later feel embarrassed about it). The individual in question is not — as one of the local Twitterverse’s more prominent denizens pointed out to me via Direct Message — a celebrity or a public figure, and so her meltdown should not be inherently newsworthy. By continuing to examine the events of Friday night and its aftermath, I am inevitably prolonging this woman’s distress to some degree, even if, by tweeting those threats, the communal drama was something she herself created.
But the very public nature of all of this, and the fact that it raises many searching questions means that the opportunity to extrapolate the incident to a broader set of issues carries more weight than the sense that perhaps it would be kinder to look the other way.
And the kindness of strangers was striking. I have seen how, when people on Twitter ask for help with finding missing persons or victims of hijacking, many people rally to the cause, and this was no different. People who knew the woman as little more than a Twitter handle stayed up late into the night, trying to track her down. Their relief when she was found was palpable. At the same time, the helpfulness and genuine concern shown by so many was also entwined with prurience and vicarious fascination as well as irritation at what some saw as blatant attention-seeking.
Once it was clear that she was fine, anger and cynicism quickly set in. Comments were made about how manipulative it all was. “Sympathy slut” was the word used by a friend in a Direct Message. Why hadn’t the individual in question tweeted to thank everyone for their concern? She had tweeted suicide threats before; did the fact that she deleted her profile mean she was just looking for attention, again? Others had evidently experienced the devastation of suicide close to home before, and the whole thing was very upsetting.
The episode not only demonstrated the humanity (both the good and the bad) that is at the core of Twitter — how the drive to connect emotionally with others is an essential aspect of the attraction of social media — but also the risks of making public the sort of thing that usually happens in private. It demonstrated, with remarkable power, that ability of Twitter to telescope into the private lives of those otherwise anonymous people in the apartment next door or the car in front of you in the traffic, and how unexpectedly challenging this can be both for the tweeter and his or her followers.
What is clear is that the average person is in no position to deal with somebody who threatens suicide; at the very least, it’s a job for a trained volunteer. Over the weekend, I mentioned the suicide tweets to a friend who doesn’t pay that much attention to Twitter. He asked why we don’t have a 911 hashtag or profile where people can direct calls for help. He was being flippant, but it’s actually a good idea — more and more people will use Twitter as a channel to seek help, and we do need some way to coordinate a proper response. However we choose to deal with a crisis, ignoring threats or cries for help is not an option. On Christmas Day last year, a woman killed herself after making an announcement on Facebook; the Daily Mail reported that not one of her 1082 friends tried to help her.
I cannot imagine that any of us would like to have something like that staining out collective conscience.
Here then are some of those questions I alluded to earlier. Many of these are questions raised by others, whether publicly or in private correspondence. I don’t have answers to all of them, or even half of them, but it’s important that we at least start to talk about them.
- Twitter itself is becoming a source of news with greater and greater frequency. Is anything that happens here fair game? Should the tweets of ordinary people who might have taken the idea of tequila Tuesday perhaps a little too seriously really be the subject of reports in the mainstream media?
- Facebook and Twitter effectively give us carte blanche to chronicle our neuroses and parade our lack of judgment, especially when we’ve been drinking. Should vulnerable people, especially those with mental health problems, have unfettered access to social media and its attendant hazards?
- Why are organisations like SADAG — which last tweeted in October 2010 — not monitoring social media more actively? Depressed, distressed people are now far more likely to turn to Facebook or Twitter before any other channel – so why don’t intervention strategies take this into account?
- Is the public nature of the suicide threats conversely not a good thing? Despite being so widespread, depression remains largely hidden behind closed doors. Isn’t it time more of us came out of the depression closet?
- And lastly, for every one of us with a Twitter profile: Should I tweet that? Really? If you’re going to get drunk, log out: it’s not like you want your stupidity cached for eternity, after all. Always, always remember that what you write is visible to others, and that there will be consequences.
Beyond a deleted Twitter profile, the immediate results of this are not yet clear. It will almost certainly happen again though. There will be more suicide threats by other deeply unhappy people, and more drama, more anger and cynicism, and more painful regret.
The genie is out of the bottle, and he’s tweeting now.