NPR host’s live-tweeting of his mother’s last moments shows the power of 140 characters

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By now, we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing Twitter used as a real-time news delivery system for events of global importance like an earthquake or a revolution that we forget how powerful it can be when used in an intensely personal way by a single person going through a life-changing event. National Public Radio host Scott Simon has been providing a lesson in that over the past couple of days, as he has been live tweeting the last days of his mother, Patricia, who is in the intensive care unit at a Chicago hospital.

Some observers have questioned whether Simon’s use of Twitter during such an intensely personal time is appropriate, or whether it is somehow exploitative and crass — just as some questioned whether my live-tweeting of a friend’s funeral last year was appropriate. But I think what Simon is doing is a powerful statement not just about his own relationship to his mother and what she is going through, but also a moving commentary on death and the elderly.

In some ways, Simon’s use of Twitter actually makes what he’s been doing from his mother’s bedside a lot more personal than if he were broadcasting on the radio or doing a video report — something that would seem impersonal and gratuitous. The simple posting of short messages, reporting his mother’s comments on various aspects of her care or making observations about her life, is so much more human in a sense. And those messages are clearly resonating with his followers, since many have been retweeted hundreds of times.

Simon, an author and host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, has posted some humorous comments made by his mother, as well as a photo of the inflatable bed that he has been sleeping on in her room, and hasn’t shied away from talking about the emotional impact of losing his mother. In many ways, reading his feed is like listening in on a conversation — with powerful emotional statements mixed in with complaints about hospital food, or a description of Simon holding his mother in his arms for hours while she slept.

One commenter on a Wall Street Journal post about what Simon is doing didn’t see the purpose, saying: “Now death itself in real time is the subject of internet sponsored chatter. If the dying moments of your mother can now be the subject of 140 character publicly disseminated sound bites, then any regard for privacy, and any sense of awe of life’s end, has been seriously anesthetized.” Many of Simon’s supporters disagreed, however, saying his live-tweeting was allowing others to experience his mother’s passing through his eyes in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before Twitter.

As I said in my post about live-tweeting my friend Michael’s funeral:

“One of the key features of social tools like Twitter, at least for me, is their ability to transport us to different places and allow us to see things through another’s eyes, whether it’s a personal event like Michael’s funeral or a politically-charged situation like the Arab Spring. This ability to collapse space and time is something that we almost take for granted now — but it is an incredibly powerful phenomenon.”

Matthew Hall from the San Diego Union-Tribune has collected some of Simon’s tweets in a Storify if you want to see more.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / mathom

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