Is announcing serious health problems on Facebook apropros – or just annoying?
We’ve all had casual conversations about the annoyance (and, often, idiocy) of Facebook oversharers. They usually peter out and involve tips on how to change newsfeed settings, concluding with a loose consensus that it’s irritating to get constant reminders of how your life choices have differed from those of your high school friends since graduation. But when I heard about the tragic story of Shana Greatman Swers, it forced me to stop and seriously contemplate whether it’s appropriate to share health-related personal details on Facebook.
Last week’s Washington Post article, A Facebook Story: A Mother’s Joy and a Family’s Sorrow, is an unusually compelling but incredibly depressing read, and it’s told almost entirely through Facebook status updates from the now-deceased mother and wife, Shana Greatman Spears. The 35-year-old consultant posted constantly about nearly everything she did, felt, or saw. Her posts about food cravings and pampering spa treatments less than piqued my interest (these were examples of chronic oversharing that I’d normally bad-mouth and remove from my newsfeed), but the continual posts about her pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum health complications, ultimately ending with the announcement of her funeral via Facebook wall, were stuck in my mind for days after reading them. Her horrible fate made me wonder if I’d been overly judgmental of the Facebook overshare.
But however morose I felt after reading about Shana, I still believe there’s a reason we sign so many agreements about our medical records when visiting a new doctor: It’s called privacy. I don’t want my co-workers or even my own parents to know everything that goes on with me at the doctor’s office. I feel awful every time I think of Shana – may she rest in peace. But the idea of an obituary told through screenshots of social network status updates seems nearly as tragic as her unexpected and untimely death. There’s a time and place for announcements of life and death, and I’m not so sure that place is Facebook.
That said, my curmudgeonly social networking attitude surely hasn’t earned me a support network of friends and family like Shana’s, which is almost instantly available through Facebook. Judging by the copious feedback on her wall, she had a lot of people who cared about what was happening to her. That’s important, especially in the midst of an emergency. Last week, for example, my phone was ambushed with missed calls and messages from my best friend’s parents, who were growing concerned that she hadn’t responded for days to their texts or voicemails. It did seem unlike her, and in fact, I couldn’t reach her either. I hadn’t checked in with her about her weekend plans, so I began to worry, too. I called all our friends and yes, I checked Facebook. Eventually, we figured out that she’d simply gone on a weekend trip and lost cell phone reception, and it was no big deal. But had she been a bit more like Shana, perhaps no one would have had to worry.
Still, there’s a reason we’re such good friends. Among the top 20 is the fact that she doesn’t litter my Facebook page with details that I’d rather discuss with her over dinner. And I appreciate knowing that if we hang out tomorrow, she won’t be tweeting about it that night.
When I asked around to find out what other people thought about online health updates, I received a flurry of near-instant feedback. (Not surprising, right?) One co-worker responded with her own story of too-intimate health details from a friend:
Recently, a friend of mine made his status “F**k cancer ” without any other explanation. After several of his friends commented, he revealed that his grandfather was just diagnosed with cancer and was very sick. Now, I understand wanting to vent on Facebook, but it was a bit jarring. I think sharing highly personal, sad news with all of Facebook adds a level of seriousness to what should be a lighthearted social network, and leaves your friends with little recourse other than a response that includes a sad face emoticon. I understand the urge to share what you’re going through with your “friends,” but you’ll probably tell your real friends about what you’re going through anyway, so what’s the point? I would never post something on my Facebook status that I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending out in a mass email. And, can you imagine getting a mass email from a friend announcing, “Hey guys, just wanted to let you know — F**k Cancer.”