Why My Social Media Friends Thought I Was Dying

Health and medicine explained.
July 10 2013 2:48 PM

Alive and Tweeting

Facebook friends, relax. I’m not dying. Why did you think I was?

Hospital patient.
Social media has profoundly transformed the way most of us acquire and act on information, including updates about a loved one's medical emergency.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Attention Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Google Plus circles, LinkedIn connections, and assorted friends of friends of friends: At no point last week was I clinically dead.

My heart didn’t stop for seven minutes. I didn’t have emergency surgery. I wasn’t placed in a medically induced coma and chilled to 90 degrees to preserve my brain function. I wasn’t then carefully warmed to awaken, stunningly, to the embrace of my family. And while I did spend one night at the hospital, I spent it on a lumpy folding cot in the waiting room outside the cardiac intensive care unit, not inside it.

The heart-attack victim was my sister’s husband, who also happens to be named Dan. Even in my emotionally addled, sleep-deprived state, I anticipated that this surfeit of Dans might be confusing, so I tried to make the distinction clear in my various social media postings updating his condition. I called him “Dan D.” (as opposed to Dan F.) and was careful to tag him and my sister in my Facebook posts. I even posted several updates that had no purpose other than to clarify who was gravely ill and who was merely on the support-and-communications team.

It didn’t matter; the misunderstandings pinballed crazily through cyberspace. My literary agent was quickest on the draw, telling me she was thinking of me and was glad to hear I was on the mend. (She had the good taste not to ask whether this would affect the timing of my next book proposal.) A colleague who is a magazine journalist told me she was hoping with all her heart that mine was OK. Another writer friend from Seattle sent along a photo of a pastoral scene to aid my recovery. An evangelical acquaintance from eighth grade offered his fervent prayers for my salvation. And at the newspaper I left eight years ago, several people I barely knew nonetheless wrote to express their shock and horror at my condition. “Glad to hear that Dan is awake and improving,” one of them wrote on my Facebook wall, referring to me in the third person. “Heart attack? No way.”

No way, indeed.

It was hard to know exactly how to react to this outpouring of concern. At first, I was incredulous. How could so many smart people, most of them professional communicators, have so badly misunderstood me, despite the pains I took to try to be crystal clear? Did they really think I would be tweeting immediately after waking from a coma?

As the errors piled up, though, it all began to make sense, in a topsy-turvy virtual-world kind of way. I realized it wasn’t at all far-fetched for my cyberacquaintances to think that someone—my wife, perhaps—would sign onto my Facebook and Twitter accounts and post on my behalf, since that would be the easiest way to let my friends know what was going on. Even my attempts to end the confusion by posting clarifying messages online were easily misconstrued if you only read their first few words: “Everyone, don’t worry, I’m fine!” could mean, “I’m fine now that I’m recovering from this massive heart attack!

It would be quite unfair to be angry with people who surely meant well and were merely expressing concern based on a misreading of my words. So why, one week later, as my brother-in-law recovers his memory and restarts his life, am I still stewing about something so comparatively insignificant? Why is this bothering me so much?

One of the reasons is that this episode drove home just how profoundly the Internet has transformed the way most of us acquire and act on information—a transformation that has forced wrenching changes in my own profession of journalism. In her 2007 book Proust and the Squid, Tufts University neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf points out that the ability to interpret written symbols, to read, is a relatively recent invention of our species, unlike much older ways of sharing information via speech and visual images. She calls the “reading brain” one of humanity’s greatest evolutionary achievements but worries that we’re losing our incentive to use it thanks to the rise of digital culture, with its emphasis on brevity, sensation, and ubiquitous but uncontextualized morsels of information—along with, of course, rapid-fire interactivity (just click “like”!). It’s not that we’re forgetting how to read, it’s that we’re rapidly losing any incentive to read well, to make deep connections instead of flitting from one amusement to the next. After watching many of my acquaintances—including highly experienced editors and reporters—react to my Facebook posts without reading beyond their first few words, I now see what Wolf means.

Mostly, though, I’m disappointed in myself. It’s a humbling experience for someone who professes to be an expert in clear communication to be repeatedly misunderstood, and it plays to the insecurities of my generation (I’m 50) about our digital naïveté.

At a deeper level, I’m wondering if I’m guilty of the same sensation-seeking behavior I’m so quick to criticize in my social media acquaintances. Why did I care so much about having legions of “friends” and “followers,” many of whom I’ve never actually met? My real, nonvirtual friends knew I wasn’t sick. (For one thing, they know my wife scorns Facebook and would never post anything under my name.) Some of them also knew I had a brother-in-law named Dan, so there was no chance they would be confused. But no one forced me to accept all of those friend requests from people I know so faintly that if I bumped into them at a conference or the hardware store I’d be able to manage no more than a few sentences of small talk—if I recognized them at all.

And why was I so eager to jump online and issue dramatic bulletins from the hospital to all of my friends and followers, not just Dan D.’s? Was I seeking community or craving an audience? Yes, some of my social media hangers-on were a tad voyeuristic in demanding additional horrifying details. But if they’re voyeurs, then I’m an exhibitionist. As a journalist, I’m well acquainted with the thrill that comes with being listened to, but my relentless medical updates served no broader public good. Heck, they didn’t even help me sell any books! My sister was already delivering the updates that really mattered; they were more meaningful because they carried more information, came from the best-positioned source, and were also (this is key!) less frequent.

Deep down, I think I even may have derived a bit of perverse pleasure at the confusion my own postings had sown. Each time I read one of those third-person messages of concern about me, I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when they sneaked into their own funeral and got to hear themselves eulogized.

There’s no going back to the old ways, of course. The rise of social media confers huge benefits as well as costs. It’s already a great way to reach large groups of people, and it’s going to get better as we figure out smarter ways to use it. In fact, now that Dan D. is convalescing at home, he’s back to being a happy Facebook user, too. But as for me, I’m going to rethink my own social media ways—just as soon as I finish publicizing this column to all of my friends of friends of friends.

Dan Fagin is a professor of science journalism at New York University. His new book is Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.