Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tasteless Twittering: Newspaper tweets details of child’s funeral

The decision by the Rocky Mountain News to broadcast continuous, live updates to Twitter of the details of the funeral of a three-year old boy has caused a storm of controversy among ethicists, journalists and bloggers.

Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a social networking service that uses instant messaging to allow users to share information about what they are doing at any given moment. Updates, known as “tweets” are displayed on the sender’s page and automatically sent to subscribers.

Most Twitter users share the mundane details of everyday life, answering the question “What are you doing now?” Lisa Reichelt, on her disambiguity blog, refers to this as “ambient intimacy”:

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. … There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

One benefit of twittering is that updates can be made frequently, facilitating uses such as marketing, micro-blogging, networking and breaking news. You can track Barack Obama on the campaign trail, follow TechCrunch’s blog updates, stay up-to-date with NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander or catch breaking news from the CBC. Twitter has also been used to share the blow-by-blow account of a couple’s argument or even to offer a proposal of marriage.

Given the broad spectrum of information that can be shared via Twitter, what then, is the etiquette? What is appropriate twittering and what is taboo? In the case of the funeral for three year-old car crash victim Marten Kudlis, many believe the good taste envelope was pushed to the limit. Reporter Berny Morsen’s play-by-play of the toddler’s funeral seemed voyeuristic and lacking in the reverence one would expect from newspaper coverage of such an event.

While shocking, it is simply a more extreme example of how the use of technologies such as Twitter is blurring the line between what is public and what should be private.

20th century etiquette expert Emily Post noted that: “People who talk too easily are apt to talk too much, and at times imprudently”. The need to feed Twitter followers with a steady stream of updates, coupled with the immediacy of the technology, encourages users to post before thinking.

Margaret Mason, contributor for The Morning News, perhaps says it best: “What’s rude in life is rude on Twitter.”

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