McGuire on Media

Twitter may not save the world, but its power to make me feel for Patrick is awesome

On February 9 at 1:55 p.m. I filed my first ever Tweet. It read: “This is my maiden voyage. Call this the old man and the technology sea.”

My world did not shake. My emotional moorings remain sound. Social media and I have gotten along just fine. My kindergarten granddaughter reading her first Junie B. Jones book cover to cover was a much bigger deal for me.  So was my three-year-old grandson conquering potty training. Those are the strong human events that have recently touched me and Twitter has not been even a small part of that crucial, visceral life–until 5:01 PDT Wednesday. At that moment I realized the real value of Twitter is human connection at the most basic level. That’s because Patrick died.

I don’t even know Patrick’s last name, but his death brought me to tears and pissed me off. A 16-year-old kid shouldn’t have to suffer the way I know he did. The Tweet that changed my perspective about Twitter looked like this.

stevebuttry Our precious nephew Patrick’s struggle ended today. Thanks to all who supported us and prayed for him. We had him for 16 wonderful years.

With that, a months-long saga reached a sad, inevitable conclusion. Throughout the ordeal, Steve Buttry who has become a friend in the last 18 months or so, kept his “followers” apprised of Patrick’s comebacks and setbacks through AML leukemia and a March bone marrow transplant. It is hard to tell a dramatic story of life and death in 140 characters, but Steve did it repeatedly. I did not realize how well Steve had done it until Wednesday afternoon when Patrick passed. I was profoundly shaken. I had become a part of Patrick’s battle and his family’s battle.  Hell, I was part of his family because of Twitter.

Over the last several months when my social media averse friends mocked Twitter I have kept silent. When my Twitter obsessed friends talked about how their lives have changed I smiled politely.  I have simply not found it worth debating whether Twitter has put mainstream journalism under siege.  The innovative efforts to see if Twitter can be journalism have intrigued me without convincing me.

I found myself empathetic with The author there wrote: “On one side, many journalists don’t buy the trend toward social media and have their heads firmly entrenched in the sand. They believe in their readership’s loyalty and claim that social media is a passing fad. One the other side, other journalists have fully embraced the social media tools at their disposal and go so far as to trumpet the death of journalism. They expect newspapers to close up shop; the death knell of print news is a symphony of tweets.”

I have thought those debates overwrought and I agreed with that same author’s conclusions: “Personally, I believe they are both wrong. Some newspapers will outlast social media and some have already been taken down by it. The basic truth is that some people love getting their news from social media like Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed, while others will never replace their tangible newspaper-with-coffee routine.”

That author seems right on to me and I’ve been a bit bewildered why we all can’t just get along. In my mind Twitter is just an interim step along the way toward a radical shift of power from publishers to community. I have not seen why we have to choose sides and beat the enemy into submission.

The New York Times’ Roger Cohen this week wrote what I found to be a fairly lucid, rational opinion about what Journalism is and what Twitter and other social media aren’t.. I especially liked this: “Technology has enriched journalism by expanding the means to deliver it and the raw material on which it is based. But technology has also diminished the incentive — and the revenue — to get out of the office. Understanding without the trained “view from the ground” (Martha Gellhorn) remains impossible. Nature abhors a vacuum, journalism even more so, and so it fills absence with windiness.”

I think that makes an important point without diminishing the contribution of social media.  But my friend Steve Buttry saw it differently and tweeted this. “stevebuttry: Cohen says Twitter isn’t journalism. It’s news source & journalism tool. & his arrogant whining isn’t good journalism.

I think we diminish social media and journalism by insisting that one or another be the King of the Hill. In April Brian Solis wrote something important for TechCrunch: “The socialization of the web is powered by not only the ability for citizens to publish and share content, but also the wherewithal and associated rewards for connecting with the real people and the personalities with whom we follow. This is paramount as publishers and journalists can learn from the ongoing documentation in the art and science of online community building.”

Journalists have been dedicated to telling dramatic stories about the human struggle since the first printing press rolled. Triumphs, struggles, failures and profound disappointments form the fabric of life and great journalists communicate that reality with power and strength. 

I discovered Wednesday that Twitter can connect me to a 16-year-old boy I never met. Twitter can make me feel Patrick’s loss deeply. Journalists scoff at that deep human connection at their peril.