Blogger Live-Tweets Her Mammogram, Learns She Has Cancer

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Boing-Boing.net blogger and internet “celebrity” Xeni Jardin went to get her first mammogram, and live-tweeted the experience to her thousands of followers. At the end of her doctor’s visit, she learned she may have cancer.

That is a frightening and sad conclusion to what I can only assume she thought would be a routine examination. But by publicizing her experience this way, she highlights the poignant limit of the connected world, and that limit is this: we all face death alone.

Early in the day, Xeni tweeted that she “decided the experience of getting a mammogram would be less scary if I tweeted about it, mocked it, or turned it into a game.” In other words, she turned to twitter as a real-time escape from an unpleasant experience. People have always done this, and escape from reality when reality is uncomfortable is a common, and effective, coping mechanism. This is why grown-ups will with full concentration and furrowed brow, struggle their way through the hidden picture puzzles in Highlights at the dentist’s office.

What is interesting about Xeni’s tweet is that it highlights the true role of “social media” in our world. Social media are not really about connecting us with others, they are about mediating our experience of reality. Social media, by allow us to comment reflectively and reflexively on real-time events allow us to distance ourselves from those same events.

Susan Sontag wrote a now famous book about photography that everyone should read called On Photography. Sontag remarked that taking a photograph meant putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge and therefore like power. That photography was a way to alienate oneself from the world, to abstract it and make it emotionally and cognitively manageable.

She also rather famously said that “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” I would argue that social media have had a similar effect. Twitter and Facebook make everyone a tourist in our own lives, and make us tourists in theirs. And the act of tweeting or updating our status, that act of constantly reflecting on the unfolding of our experiences right in front of us make us tourists in our own lives. Like Sontag said with respect to photography, we abstract it away to give us the illusion of understanding of these events and therefore to give us the illusion of power over them.

But more importantly, and unlike photography, social media validates our own mistaken belief that our lives are worth visiting, that our private joys and tragedies somehow play out on a grander scale than is actually the case.

Psychotherapist Otto Rank wrote that the fear of life is the fear of separation and individuation. The fear of becoming an individual. Conversely, the fear of death is the fear of the loss of individuality.

When we mediate our reality, through twitter or photography or a diary hidden under the mattress, what we are doing is abstracting ourselves from life because to experience it directly in that moment is too personal, perhaps too intensely stressful or too intensely joyful. We run from the truly unique and personal experience in to the waiting arms of the masses. In Xeni’s case, she started by sharing with the twitterverse her understandable anxiety over a mammogram, a procedure which is always routine for everyone except the patient. Being a patient means being an acutely vulnerable individual, small, bewildered, and powerless completely at the mercy of biological forces and medical sciences you don’t understand. When patients want to escape from this aspect of life, through a waiting room magazine, a hospital TV that only gets horrible channels, or through Twitter, it is completely understandable.

But when Xeni learned she had cancer, her temporary flight from life became a flight from death. Her feed instantly shifted from “let’s go through this together” to “help me through this.” Again, completely understandable, but fascinating to play out over the course of hours.

If we consider what Sontag and Rank together imply, that social media allow us to abstract from our individual lives whenever life or death become too real, we realize that social media whatever their social or political benefits may be, are fundamentally symptoms of a greater neurotic condition-the fear of being absolutely present in one’s own life.

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22 Responses to Blogger Live-Tweets Her Mammogram, Learns She Has Cancer

  1. MarcusB says:

    Hi Pastabagel, wonderful article.

    I suppose the last sentence is the cherry on top and the point of it all. So I’m going to ask right away: Does this mean having the fear of being completely responsible for what happens in our little context of life?

  2. Minerva says:

    Epic post is epic.

    The fear of being absolutely present in one’s own life.

    I was on the net surfing while I giving birth until the pain got too strong, and that was 11 years before this lady tweeted about her experience. Not much different from a man dying of cancer blogging about his experience.

    Perhaps this is what religion used to do for people in the past?

  3. The Rambling Fool says:

    This post really spoke to me. Thanks a lot for the food for thought.

  4. Madison says:

    I have notice how quickly the ‘flavor’ of her Tweets has changed from witty (“I want to be a Karie Couric of boobs”/”Will choose my doc based on proximity to a brunch place”) to very plain updates…
    To paraphrase, there are no meta/postmodernistic intellectuals in the foxholes.

    I bet that within couple weeks she will put on a ‘Me-With-Cancer’ persona as an attempt to mantain her individuality (which was quite nicely presented in G. Lucas’ Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy

  5. CarbonCopy says:

    Awesome post. It made me think of this: http://www.ryanholiday.net/the-present-moment/
    Still about the present moment, but the opposite kind.

  6. Fifi says:

    “Sontag remarked that taking a photograph meant putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge and therefore like power. That photography was a way to alienate oneself from the world, to abstract it and make it emotionally and cognitively manageable….When we mediate our reality, through twitter or photography or a diary hidden under the mattress, what we are doing is abstracting ourselves from life because to experience it directly in that moment is too personal, perhaps too intensely stressful or too intensely joyful. We run from the truly unique and personal experience in to the waiting arms of the masses.”

    You mean like you’re doing with this blog? What you don’t seem to realize that there is no “unmediated reality” and that reality is mediated by our senses (and beliefs). It’s odd that you consider writing a diary – which often remains a private narrative and isn’t shared with the public to be “running into the arms of the masses” when it can (and often is) a meditation on someone’s unique and personal experiences.

    • operator says:

      … there is no “unmediated reality” …

      A schizophrenic’s reality isn’t mediated (until it’s medicated).

      • Fifi says:

        A schizophrenic’s reality is still mediated by their neurobiology, they’re still human beings and they still have the same senses as us, they just misinterpret what is real and what is imagined even more than the rest of us. Learning how to life draw or meditate, for instance, doesn’t mean one is suddenly experiencing unmediated reality!

        • operator says:

          Conversely, no argument against solipsism will prove sufficient to convince a solipsist of his or her subjective reality’s primacy.

        • operator says:

          ^ yep, perfectly clear and definitely not self-contradictory – as usual

        • Fifi says:

          If you’re merely talking about a “personal reality” instead of “objective reality” then a schizophrenic’s experience IS their reality both when medicated and unmedicated. If you’re talking about “objective reality” that exists entirely independent of our observations, then we all mediate objective reality via our limited senses (not to mention our beliefs/biases, which quite actively influence what we can and cannot observe).

          • operator says:

            If you’re merely talking about a “personal reality” instead of “objective reality” then a schizophrenic’s experience IS their reality both when medicated and unmedicated.

            Yes, but the unmedicated version could be argued to be unmediated – there is no internal representation of “objective reality” to conflict with the subjective reality’s immediacy – whereas a hefty dose of major depressants can, if not restore an internal representation of “objective reality”, at least delay the perceived immediacy of stimuli which others do not perceive.

          • Fifi says:

            How can it be argued as “unmediated”? They’re still experiencing the world via their senses so it’s still “mediated reality”, it’s just a misattribution as to causation. “A major depressant”? Do you mean an antipsychotic? You do understand that an “internal representation of ‘objective reality'” is still an “internal representation” and a mediated reality – it’s not objective reality – that is dependent upon both our sense’s interpretation of external stimuli and our beliefs?

          • operator says:

            “internal representation of ‘objective reality’” is still an “internal representation” and a mediated reality – it’s not objective reality

            Yes, those words were chosen carefully so as not to evoke the construct of an ultimate objective reality (if such exists it is decidedly not pragmatic to discuss it).

            You may consider “unmediated reality” to be a similarly-useless signifier, however, when one experiences ideation and absolute belief simultaneously, it doesn’t feel mediated (and schizophrenics off their meds are not known for remediating inconsistent/”objectively” unsupportable beliefs – not unlike some postmodernists).

  7. crashd says:

    An unfortunate amount of ideology in this post. I hope you will realize I’m not trolling and consider that it’s hard to see any difference between this and any reasonably logical sounding religious text. There may be some conjectural evidence for some of these statements, this is not an attack on any particular worldview, and abstractions are bread and butter, this is not an attack against those. But this is embarrassing material and analysis should not be presented this way.

    • Guy Fox says:

      Dude/M´lady, I am all for positivism when trying to determine whether and how the lunar mass and orbit affect the tides and such like. Bring on the Bayes if your MLE won’t jive with GLM.

      But what could such an epistemology possibly tell anyone about the subjective apprehension of life and death? Find conjectural evidence for the efficient cause leading to your first love. Even if you find the constant conjunction to explain sufficiently the association between a tickle in your toes and really good chocolate, expressing it in those terms will sap it of all meaning.

      If you’d rather hear it from a logician/mathematician, “…in the intuition of a multiplicity of three or four objects, the mere number imposes no subjective form. It is merely a condition regulating some pattern of effective components. In abstraction from those components, mere triplicity can dictate no subjective form for its prehension. But green can. And there lies the difference between the sensa and the abstract mathematical forms.” – A.N. Whitehead

      If you believe what you wrote, then your world is black and white. You live without colour. For that I envy and pity you (not necessarily in that order). Pure shot in the dark: could it be that your commitment to logic, or at least a certain form thereof, is a means of moderating reality’s effects on you? Could it be that, when something ineffable/meaningful weasels out of the woodwork, the quickest and most painless answer is “Does not compute.” ?

  8. thestage says:

    Let me rewrite the important bits of this to make it more immediate and palatable:

    “That is a frightening and sad conclusion to what I can only assume she thought would be a routine examination. But I lold anyway”

    aaaand we’re done here

  9. It will be interesting to see if she continues to tweet, tweet more, or tweet less, after this.

  10. vprime says:

    I really enjoyed this, PB. I’ve noticed how live music performances have changed from the audience looking at the band to the audience looking at a screen pointed at the band. I always wonder who all these people are recording these events *for*. It’s also a way to assert one’s existence in our time. If you ever head over to Cyborgology, there are lots of interesting posts about the creation of a “self” through “conservatism” in the museum-sense of the word.

    I’ve been idly meaning to read Sontag for some time. I will bump her up on my reading list.

  11. BHE says:

    Really well-written post with some fascinating ideas. Makes me wonder what Sontag (or you) would say about the person who uses the cell phone as social media–texting friends or calling Mom about everything that happens to immediately process it. Seems like an extension of the same behavior, which makes me wonder about the next generation…we’ve already seen that teenagers today send an average of something like 100 texts a day. This is above and beyond their facebook and twitter updates…what sorts of meanings do today’s youth derive from a life that is lived and analyzed so immediately and so publicly? And is it that different from a life lived in a small town 100 years ago, when everything you did was public knowledge to everyone else anyway?

  12. ppkjxh812112 says:

    When we mediate our reality, through twitter or photography or a diary hidden under the mattress

    What does the word ‘mediate’ mean in this context? To place something between our expeirnence of reality and reality?

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