My mother died last month, and I crossed Australia twice on night-time flights to Perth, once to be with her in her last days, and then to farewell her body from the world. My mother died on social media as well, as you can nowadays. On Facebook, I posted a picture of her as a young woman because I wanted people to know that while in her last months she was so very unwell, she was once a girl with a girl’s sensibility. I wrote a journal piece about who she was other than my mother because I wanted people to know.
Posting about my mother’s death got me thinking about an issue I’ve been struggling with, how much I should share my life with strangers online, what rights my son has in what I share about him, and now what rights my mother has. With the light of death illuminating everything more sharply, I moved to less comfortable questions about whether social media are actually social at all, whether they’re authentic and helpful or just the same as mainstream media, only with millions more voices that are less managed, more cacophonous and eternal.
I did a debate on Twitter a few years ago for the Australian Booksellers’ Association’s annual dinner. I was against, not through choice, although I might have chosen to be against, as I quite like taking a contrary position on new things. But this was entertainment and you were allocated to a team. Except I didn’t know I’d been allocated at all. In the week leading up, I’d noticed I’d pencilled a hold in my diary for the ABA. I’d received nothing more in six months and I couldn’t recall who I’d held it for or what it was. “Hold ABA” was all it said. I was writing about maternity care at the time, so I assumed it was a chapter of the Australian Breastfeeding Association that hadn’t gone ahead. Imagine my surprise when I returned from a weekend at the beach to a frantic message from a poor publicist – who hadn’t passed on emails she’d received for me because she’d thought someone else was doing so – telling me I was due on stage in an hour for a debate about Twitter, to an audience of booksellers not breastfeeders.
It occurred to me, as I was furiously scribbling notes in the car on the way in to town (husband driving), that Twitter and breastfeeding are at opposite ends of a spectrum of communing. I can’t imagine a more intimate exchange than breastfeeding, but after months of struggling with Twitter, it remains for me like a room full of people talking to themselves with no one talking back. Those in favour of Twitter in the debate were passionate about social media and the freedom, immediacy and equality of communication we all now enjoy. But Twitter, and Facebook too to a lesser extent, leave me feeling awfully lonely and a little bit not all right about myself. What’s worse, I suspect I’m addicted.
When I got off the plane from Perth for the second time in less than a week, having said goodbye to my mother’s cold body a day before, I didn’t want my experience mediated in any way. My husband met me at the airport and took me in his arms and held me as I sobbed, those body-wracking sobs that grief feels right at home with.
A week later, I had to organise a memorial mass for my mother, with hymns. Mum had loved music and had a true voice which I hadn’t inherited. I needed singers, so I posted again on Facebook and I emailed. Friends, school mums and, as I learned, singers Deb, Kate, Majella, Sam, Monica, Lynne and Jane responded. They took time out of busy Saturday mornings and came to mass and sang for my mother. I think it meant something to them. It meant everything to me. And then my mezzo soprano friend Nan Hughes from Banff, Canada, recorded John McCormick’s “Smilin’ Through” on her phone and emailed me an MP3 file to play after Communion. I’ll never forget these gifts, which were made possible at least partly through social media.
“Only connect” writer EM Forster told us. Whatever else is true, he was right. Only connect. He could have tweeted that one.