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Tweeting through a crisis

The sad tale of a Florida mother who posted a message on Twitter just half an hour after calling 911 to report she'd found her 2-year-old son at the bottom of a swimming pool (where he had in fact drowned) raises all kinds of questions. Chief among them: Is there any way to justify tweeting while your child's life hangs in the balance?

My knee-jerk reaction is a vehement "no." The only place for that mom to be, IMHO, was by her child's side.

But others feel otherwise. Many have spoken up in defense of 37-year-old Shellie Ross, saying that she had cultivated a large group of on-line correspondents she considered friends and naturally turned to them for support and prayers during her moment of crisis.

That this matter is controversial comes as no surprise to Johns Hopkins University's Patricia Wallace, author of The Psychology of the Internet . "The issue," she says, "is that we have all these new tools, and we blunder a lot in using them because the norms aren't set." Those norms, whether they apply to telegraph use a century ago, cell-phone use in the past decade or social media in 2010, "take a long time to settle out," Wallace says.

"It's sad," Wallace adds, "but 'Twitter' -- the very name -- makes it sound trivial. But the fact is that people use these things [such as Twitter and Facebook] to form connections that used to be made in person."

Wallace understands why Ross tweeted as she did. "The minute she posted something, she must have just been deluged with condolence messages," she says.

Apparently she was. And I do hope that that outpouring was helpful to her.

Still, I guess I'm not sufficiently engaged in Twitter to really understand Ross's actions.

Part of me -- a big part of me -- hopes I never am.

What's your reaction to this situation? Record your comments below, and please vote in today's poll.

Live Q&A: Join an online chat about making realistic fitness resolutions today at 2 p.m. with fitness guru Pamela Peeke and MisFit columnist Vicky Hallett. Submit questions here.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 7, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Psychology , Social Media  
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If at a computer keyboard was the only way to get to Twitter, I might be more appalled. As it is, you can Tweet from a cell phone text message, so she might well have been by her child's side as she was tweeting and reaching out for support.

Posted by: | January 7, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

In all likelihood, there was nothing she could have been doing to help her son - by that time, the EMTs and doctors would have taken over, perhaps even banning her from her son's side. If Tweeting from her cellphone was how she reached out for help and support, who are we to criticize?

Posted by: northgs | January 7, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

If one of your children were so horribly injured, wouldn't you want to alert your immediate friends and family so that they could come to the hospital, contact other family members, and just be praying for you? Would you want to sit there with your landline and dial up each individual person and tell the story ten times, or wouldn't it be faster and easier to write a brief message and post it to Twitter where you know those people will all get it? Using Twitter or a status update on Facebook or an email seems much more logical to me since you can send a mass message this way. That makes total sense to me, especially, as others have stated, you don't need to be sitting at your desktop computer to use Twitter. Seems obvious to me...

Posted by: rrap1 | January 7, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Actually the big controversy is more about the fact that she was twittering shortly before the incident itself, so she has been accused of caring so much about computer that she could not take sufficient care of her child and therefore it's her fault he died. Posting later is just icing on the cake of this argument.

Posted by: di89 | January 7, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't sound like she tweeted before calling the hospital. More like she did so while her son was being taken care of and she was probably out in a waiting room by herself. If that's the case, I can't imagine judging her for anything she might have done at that moment especially for contacting people who would want to know.

Posted by: sarahabc | January 7, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

She did the best thing she could do at that moment, she asked for their prayers.

Posted by: t_a_forrester | January 7, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, a generation ago she would have been berated for getting on the phone to tell family about the loss. "So crass; why didn't she visit in person?" we'd have said.

And two generations ago, we'd ask why she, a woman, was usurping the head-of-household's role. "It's the man's job to bear this news."

Times change. Mores change. Deal.

Posted by: web_user | January 8, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a big fan of the whole Twitter revolution. That being said, I have a really hard time critizing anybody's reaction to the loss of a child. I can not, nor do I want to even try, to imagine the overwelming grief that the parent must go through. How they respond to that grief and reach out to others for support needs to be whatever works for them.

Posted by: justanotherguy | January 8, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

Re: "Still, I guess I'm not sufficiently engaged in Twitter to really understand Ross's actions.

"Part of me -- a big part of me -- hopes I never am."

This is just silly. Twitter is an experiential tool. You gotta' do it to get it. There is watching Twitter from the outside, and ridiculing it, and then there is experiencing Twitter and its benefits from the inside, and THEN judging whether it is a waste of time. Otherwise, this is just technophobia.

Twitter is easy to ridicule. What users of Twitter know is that the Web is social. That is the Web's most powerful, compelling iteration at the moment. We use the Web to connect, not to disconnect. People "hoping" they never are engaged with simple tools that connect them to others to me just shouts TECHNOPHOBE. And ignorance. Get over it. There is nothing complicated about this. A woman reached out in a moment of grief. This is shocking?

Posted by: Craig_Colgan | January 8, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

This past March, I went into preterm labor and ended up in the hospital. On my way to the hospital, I made a voice post to my LiveJournal, because I knew that my friends there would want to know what was going on.

The folks online were the ones who supported me during a difficult pregnancy. They're the ones that let me complain, listened to me vent, consoled me, worried about me, checked to see how I was doing, and reminded me I was loved. They were 100 times more helpful than my husband or real life friends or family.

I'm sure this woman felt comforted knowing that her friends were thinking of her.

Posted by: marag | January 8, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

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