Saturday, October 30, 2010

Kate P and the Facebook Wake

Yesterday I turned on my phone after my flight landed, went to the Facebook app, and saw a message that made my blood run cold. It was a message from one of my FB friends (who is also a real, proper, 'I've stayed in her house' kind of friend), to another FB friend - Kate - whom I have never actually met. And Kate will always remain a friend I never met, because the message was one of condolence. Kate has died, taken away in the prime of her youth. The last FB status she ever wrote referred to how ill and pathetic she was feeling, and how she only had the strength to lick the flavour off Pringles. It's still there, that status, and to read it is horrifying and tragic and so terribly, terribly sad.

Some might argue that to me, she wasn't really a friend, and how could I feel any kind of grief for someone I never actually met, or spoke to, or so much as shared a coffee with? Kate became my FB acquaintance through a writing network, and as someone who had a mutual interest in writing, I agreed to add her to my list of friends. And I'm glad I did - I loved reading her quirky, cheeky, optimistic and occasionally tortured way of looking at the life of an artist.

Friend. It's a funny use of that word, when it's in the context of Facebook. Recently on the Sydney Morning Herald website, someone wrote about this, and the majority of comments were howls of derision. 'If you wouldn't lend them money, they're not really a friend.' 'How can you be friends with someone you've never met?' And this: 'People who make friends on Facebook are either desperate social wannabes, or career mercenaries.' I think this is missing the point that in the FB context, 'friend' is simply another name for someone who forms part of your network. Yes, I have real friends to whom I would lend money. But I also have the FB 'friends', like Kate. And when one of those 'friends' is suddenly no longer there, and you go back through their page and read their past statuses, and begin to see hints between the lines that make you wonder if you could have seen this coming, it becomes very real. And let's be under no illusion that it's grieving, not in the same crippling way that we grieve when a 'real' friend or a family member dies, but grief nonetheless.

In one of the several FB threads that have come out of Kate's sudden, untimely and - some might argue - merciful passing, in amongst all the 'I'll miss her cupcake kebabs' and 'I loved her rainbow toe-socks', someone asked 'What are we doing here? Is this a Facebook wake?' And I suppose it is.

There's one more thing that I think about when I ponder on all of this: who deletes that Facebook profile? A family member, or a lover? Is it like cleaning out the wardrobe and the chests of drawers and putting it all in cardboard boxes ready to take to St Vinnie's? Or is it rather more practical - clicking on a 'Delete Profile' button? I hope I never have to click on that button.
(For Facebook Notes readers: this post is redirected from my 'head vs desk' blog at

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What if I DON'T like it?

I'll say it - I like Facebook. I use it as a professional networking tool as much as a social networking tool. I keep in contact with friends and colleagues, learn of links and connections and industry goss, watch the occasional funny video.

But there is one thing about FB that I find rather irritating. It's the groups with views that might be seen by some as worthy of challenge or further discussion; some examples might be fundamentalist religious groups and prosperity Christians, or conspiracy theorists, or anti-immunisation groups, such as VINE. I find that these groups won't allow you to comment unless you "Like It!". And often we don't like it. But we can't respond. We can't discuss, engage in dialogue, perhaps even learn, unless we agree that we "Like It!", ergo, join the group. And we don't want to do that. Which means that these corners of Facebook remain the sole domain of people who all believe the same thing, and foment those beliefs.

I use the example of VINE, or the Vaccination Information Network. I was in a discussion with a friend about the pros and cons of childhood vaccination, and found my way to VINE, which vehemently opposes vaccination. (Incidentally, this site also likes to provide "evidence" for all manner of conspiracies - the government is gathering data on you so you'll be first against the wall when the revolution comes, the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, drop-bears aren't real, etc etc.)

But the bit that made me sit up straight was VINE's claim that whooping cough is neither "dangerous nor life-threatening". I beg to differ. Almost 300,000 people died globally from pertussis last year, and furthermore, I've personally nursed babies in PICUs who are on life support due to whooping cough. So naturally, I wanted to comment. But I couldn't, unless I joined. I wanted to send a direct message to the person who runs the group. That link was disabled. Meanwhile the regulars on the site are agreeing, agreeing, agreeing, all the while remaining blissfully unaware - or deliberately ignorant - that there is another side to this story.

I'm not saying that FB should shut the site down - I welcome discourse on pretty much anything. But let's at least have the conversation.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Be generous, dammit!

As some of my friends know, in a previous life I was a registered nurse, working on Wade Ward, the adolescent unit at the Children's Hospital, Westmead. I met a lot of wonderful people there, but the ones who really stuck in my memory were the young people with cystic fibrosis. CF is an absolute arse of a disease. There is no cure... yet. Research continues, but it's expensive. The only relief available to a person with CF is a transplant, sometimes lungs, sometimes heart and lungs. My friend Kylie Polglase had one of these. It almost killed her. But now she's taking part in the 7km CF Walkathon, on October 24, in memory of her dear friend Lisa Buckley, who passed away from CF not that long ago. So far her team has raised over $3,000, but they could always do with more. It's very easy to donate - just go to the link, and select Kylie's name from the team list, and do it. Donate! Go on! You'll feel good! Kylie's walking 7km, damn it, and last time I saw her she needed a mobility scooter to get the length of the corridor! Seriously! So get in there, folks!

Here's the link again, just in case you missed it last time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Random ruminations on being an unknown

I was recently asked by Lateral Learning Speakers Agency to present a masterclass for the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year Award finalists, and as part of that experience was invited, with the finalists, to tour the archives of the Mitchell Library with the Exhibition Curator, Paul Brunton. The special highights Paul selected included a lock of James Cook's hair in a casket that Cook's crew hand-carved from the timber of Resolution; the hand-written manuscripts for Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark and Kate Grenville's The Secret River, and, most significantly for me, the hat, pen and death mask of one of my literary heroes, Henry Lawson. They also had the copy edit of his short story collection While the Billy Boils, complete with his red editing marks.

But that's not really what I sat down to write about here. No, my major rumination has to do with a thought I had the following day, when I sat down for the lunch in the Dixson Room of the State Library of NSW. The man sitting beside me, who works for Fairfax, introduced himself, and I told him my name. 'What do you do?' he asked, and I told him that I'm a writer. 'I'm very sorry, but I'm not familiar with your work,' he replied.

We writers get that a lot. We don't feel hurt - it's just how it is. But at the same time, it's easy to wonder how far one is from being a 'known', rather than an 'unknown'. And to feel a bit despondent.

But then I spun it. I thought, if I'd been seated next to someone I knew, and who knew me, that would offer me very little in terms of improving profile, forming connections, networking, whatever you want to call it. And to be completely mercenary, that's why we go to these things, right? But here I was next to someone who didn't know me or my work (I wasn't familiar with his either, by the way) and I was suddenly in a position to create a new and possibly very useful connection. And from a networking point of view, isn't it more useful to shake hands with a stranger, have a long conversation and exchange cards at the end than yack about the same old stuff with someone we've known for years?

(Photo by Sara Fishwick)