Of Course You Can Tweet About Having Cancer

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UPDATE: 12:37PM. Wow, The Guardian pulled the columnCached copy is here. It could've been because of the content, or because of this. Guardian's notice just says that it was "inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code."


People are angry about a Guardian op-ed by Emma Keller titled: “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?”

Oof. So the background for this is that there’s a writer named Lisa Bonchek Adams. Adams has stage four breast cancer. She blogs and tweets about it. Like a lot of human beings since the beginning of written speech, she is someone who finds that writing about her problems helps her endure them.

Keller’s piece is about whether it’s ethically wrong for Adams to blog about her illness, and/or whether it’s ethically wrong for us to read about it.

Are those of us who've been drawn into her story going to remember a dying woman's courage, or are we hooked on a narrative where the stakes are the highest?

Will our memories be the ones she wants? What is the appeal of watching someone trying to stay alive? Is this the new way of death? You can put a "no visitors sign" on the door of your hospital room, but you welcome the world into your orbit and describe every last Fentanyl patch. Would we, the readers, be more dignified if we turned away? Or is this part of the human experience?

These are a bunch of very silly rhetorical questions. Today, we’re learning that the answers to them are obvious to most everyone but Keller. And as an aside, posing them as questions feels cowardly. Keller would probably be in more trouble if if you converted her questions into the opinions they are thinly veiling, i.e. swapping “Will our memories be the ones she wants?” for “Our memories won’t be the one she wants.”)  

Anyway. Usually, when everyone is outraged about a story, my impulse is to stay off the bandwagon. Internet outrage finds targets quickly and loudly and moves on just as fast, and being part of that mob doesn’t feel useful. It's more interesting to look for some sign that the target of everyone's anger has been misunderstood. But in this case, I have to say that it’s hard for me to sympathize with Keller.

The other thing that doesn’t help is that it’s unclear to me why she picked on Adams. Before Keller’s piece, Adams’ follower count was in the 7,000 range. That’s not a huge audience. I don’t know what the larger scene of writers who discuss illness online is, but I assume that there’s a lot more people than Adams, and that many people are more prominent. Also, it doesn’t help that Emma Keller’s husband wrote a companion piece, also about Adams, in the Times.

The best I can say for Keller is that I don’t think she set out to beat up on someone who’s fighting a hard fight. Instead, I think she made a mistake a lot of people make, which is to see writing on Twitter as inherently cheaper or lesser than say, writing in a printed book. If you think of Adams as a writer, you probably wouldn’t begrudge her her choice of subject. But if you think that writing online is crasser or lower, you might. And I think Keller does.

One place you can catch this is just on the level of word choice. For instance, here:

“It's clear that tweeting as compulsively as Lisa Adams does is an attempt to exercise some kind of control over her experience.”

While Adams does tweet a lot, "compulsive" feels like a weird word to use. It’s hard not to suspect that if Adams had instead written hundreds of thousands of sentences about her disease in say, The New Yorker, she’d instead just be “prolific.”

Later, in the same paragraph, Keller writes:

[Adams] was enraged a few days ago when a couple of people turned up to visit her unannounced. She's living out loud online, but she wants her privacy in real life.

Keller’s surprised that Adams would be angry that strangers showed up to her hospital room, because, after all, Adams has written publicly about her illness. Never mind that we grant every other writer on earth the privilege of writing about their personal lives while maintaining normal real world boundaries.  

To me, this is a story that’s more about the medium than the message. Two old-school journalists would understand someone’s decision to write a memoir about cancer, but they find it vexing that Adams chose to do it on a microblog.