On Live-Tweeting One's Suffering

Journalists question the ethics of cancer—of fighting it, and of blogging about it.

Ken Jennings—yes, that Ken Jennings—put it best. "Terrified I might get cancer," he tweeted this morning, "because what if Bill and Emma Keller yell at me."

He was referring to a pair of opinion pieces—Bill's, in The New York Times, and Emma's, in the Guardian—that assess the ethical dimensions of talking about cancer. Both Kellers tell the story of a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has stage 4 breast cancer and has been tweeting and blogging her experience. (Bill learned about her from Emma; they're married.) Both Kellers are concerned about Adams—but also, and sometimes seemingly more so, about her tweets. Bill frets about Adams's "decision to live her cancer onstage," Emma about her own "voyeurism" toward Adams's cancer tweets. Both do so in a way that is fairly patronizing both to Adams and to her cancer. Call it cansplaining.

Both Kellers are also, ultimately, vigilant about the moral dimensions of fighting a disease and then tweeting the fight—especially when that fight is painful and, they say, unwinnable. As the Guardian's piece puts it, teasingly: "The ethical questions abound. Make your own judgement."

What exactly are those abundant ethical questions, though? And what, precisely, begs to be judged? Here, let Emma Keller elaborate: "Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience?" she asks. "Is there such a thing as TMI?"

This is a needless ontology; of course there is such a thing, and not just because an Urban Dictionary entry from 2002 says so. But the I, if we're going to be all '02 about it, can be TM only contingently: The excess will depend on circumstance, on audience, on the information being shared. Keller, being an intelligent person, undoubtedly knows this. She also, being a frequent user of Twitter, undoubtedly realizes that there is a nicely efficient way to quash her own anxieties about Adams's tweets: Stop receiving them. Unfollow Adams. Mute her. Excise and/or exorcise her story. Problem, such as it is, solved. 

But that would be too easy. Or, rather, that would prevent the writer from gathering the fodder required to write a properly substantiated think piece. To ignore Adams would be to foreclose the possibility of extruding her experience into pliable column material—and to reject the casual entitlement that converts lived suffering into moral questioning. 

Take this line from Bill: "Her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it."

Look how deftly this moves from Adams herself to the universal "us," the preferred pronoun of think-piece idiom. Look how swiftly the logic sweeps from "her decision" to "our debates." Look how hungrily it appropriates a single woman's tweets into a matter of universal (and educational! and ethical!) concern—how voraciously Adams's experience gets transformed into a broader, more succulent truth. "What is the appeal of watching someone trying to stay alive?" Emma Keller asks, on behalf of herself. And then, seamlessly, breathlessly, on behalf of us all: "Is this the new way of death?"

Spoiler: It is not. It is one person, dealing with things in the best way she knows how. Adams herself makes no claim to universality, or to ethical authority, or to any kind of symbolism about The Way We Live Now. It is the journalists—hungry for new insights, thirsty for new trends—who are saddling her with the freight of moral implication and then judging her for the audacity they infer. It is a remarkable trick. It is also a cruel one.

It is also—to take the Kellers' own decisions and think about them, debate them, learn from them—a revealing one. This is the thing so many eager think-piecers get so spectacularly wrong: Twitter is not a monolith. New cultural norms will not be decided, breathlessly, under its auspices. And there will be, consequently, no single "new way" of doing things—dying or anything else—on its platform. Not yet, anyway. Microblog is micro; that limitation is its appeal. It is what gives people the sense of freedom they have to use Twitter to experiment and fool around and, yes, innovate. Weird stuff springs up. Thousands of flowers bloom. Gardens, however, are exceedingly difficult to discern.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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