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Tweeting a Toddler's Death

3242600102_6b2faa8eea_oOn Monday evening, a Florida family lost their two-year-old when the boy fell in a pool and quickly drowned. Rescuers tried and failed to save the boy, who was pronounced dead at a hospital.

The baby’s mother, Shellie Ross, posted the tragedy to Twitter in real time, saying, “Please pray like never before, my 2 yr old fell in the pool” a few minutes after the accident.

A tweet she has apparently deleted from her feed, after controversy erupted across Twitter and the blogosphere.

A lot of you are probably thinking, “She tweeted it?”

It doesn’t seem that strange to me. People do strange things when they are desperate and grieving. In shock, they often do whatever they were doing a few minutes earlier when things were OK. And those who believe in the power of prayer frequently ask friends and strangers to pray for loved ones when crises happen.

Most of Shellie’s friends and strangers who saw her post and the photo memorials that followed it reacted with sympathy. Many sent prayers, some sent donations.

Others were less helpful. Madison McGraw aggressively questioned the truth behind this tragic story, suggesting that it might be a hoax and claiming that she’d contacted police and journalists all over Florida and no toddler had been reported drowned. McGraw has since made several lengthy posts to her blog blaming Ross for her son’s death.

It’s not insane to wonder if such a raw personal tragedy is real. We’ve seen hoaxes tug at our heartstrings on the internet before. Anyone remember the woman who faked a troubled pregnancy and stillbirth?

Asking questions is one thing. Blaming a mom for her child’s accidental death, accusing her of faking it to get attention, and vilifying the poor woman for daring to use Twitter …that’s quite another.

Or, as someone else in the Twitterverse said, “People. Regardless of how you think someone should behave after THEIR CHILD DIES, unless you’ve lost a child, YOU JUST DON’T KNOW. STOP IT”

This is the tragedy every parent on some level lives in fear of: your child dies in front of your eyes, and all the kings horses and all the kings men can’t put him back together again. My heart and prayers are with the Ross family today, as I gratefully snuggle my own toddler while writing this.

The twitterstorm surrounding this tragedy has opened up a lot of discussion about what this Twitter thing is for.

Shellie Ross reached out to her online support system during a crisis. Her tragedy shone a light on the power of social media networks to connect strangers in sympathy and care for regular people far away whose lives echo our own in some way.

Ross also unwittingly exposed an ugly underbelly of social media. I’d bet the people insulting and blaming her online wouldn’t dare speak to her if they saw her in person. What makes us feel safe being rude on the Internet? The people we “meet” here are just as real as our physical neighbors.

Twitter, Facebook, our personal blogs: those of us inhabiting these spaces are on a kind of social frontier where there are few norms and fewer rules. What are we going to make of this space?

Catherine Connors at Her Bad Mother offered one suggestion, tweeting, “Defy meanness/ugliness by ignoring it. Let this place be a place of friendship & warmth & support & beauty & wisdom & laughter & naught else.”

Connors has since posted a lovely primer for dealing with trolls of all stripes on her own blog.

I’m not as optimistic as Connors that we can make it a place of pure light and kindness. I do look forward to people figuring out how to treat each other with decency in the new media.

What do you think of all this? Would you tweet a tragedy as it happened? Can social media offer you real support, or is it all shark-infested waters?

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