Sensitivity Lessons for Twitter and Facebook

Note to all my social media "friends": I don't need your punditry on Ryan Dunn's death

If you’re looking for a soapbox to stand on regarding the death of Jackass daredevil Ryan Dunn, I don’t have one to lend you. There’s been enough talk about his driving record and the confirmation on Wednesday that the alcohol in his system was more than double the legal limit when he wrecked his Porsche on Rt. 322 early Monday morning. Hopefully, Dunn’s death—and the death of his passenger, Zachary Hartwell—will be a wake-up call for anyone who still takes drinking and driving lightly. And hopefully their friends and family will eventually find some peace through all of this.

Those soapbox shouters made me cringe this week, as it seemed like everyone with a social networking account couldn’t resist weighing in on Dunn’s passing. Sharing opinions isn’t a bad thing, of course. But in our culture today, if you pause for even a second to process a news event, you’re already too late. The immediacy of our connections to each other—via smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—is both amazing and maddening. This week felt like mostly the latter, as anyone with a Wi-Fi signal transformed into a pundit. Film critic Roger Ebert was among the first to comment with this little gem via Twitter: “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive.” How clever. Yet at the time Ebert sent his note into cyberspace, all anyone knew for sure was that two men had been killed and Dunn had been at a bar the night he died. How many drinks did he have? The police didn’t know. Ebert didn’t know, either. But that didn’t stop him from taking a shot at a dead man—and his friends and family—to an audience of nearly half a million followers, and then soon, to the world via the media. Ebert later offered a somewhat lukewarm apology (“”I was probably too quick to tweet. That was unseemly.”), but when someone like gossip blogger Perez Hilton says you’re insensitive, you’ve probably crossed the line of good taste.

Before I heard about Ebert’s one-liner, I noticed one of my Facebook “friends” was spewing forth about Dunn, saying things like “My sources tell me…” and claiming to know the details of what happened when Dunn’s family identified his body. Meanwhile, buddies of his were chiming in, making cracks that even Ebert would have found distasteful. It reminded me why I hardly spend any time on Facebook, and why I regret that when I first joined, I had an open-door policy to accepting requests. Haven’t seen you in a decade? You’re in! Can count on one hand all of the times we’ve spoken to each other? Done! You never liked me in high school? People change, right? But seeing this blowhard posing like a one-man TMZ—and then reading the knuckle-dragging wisdom of dudes who are apparently his real-world friends—felt like sitting at the wrong table in the high school cafeteria.

I think it’s time for me to trim the fat on my Facebook page and give the virtual boot to anyone who enjoys daily partisan rants, updates on the cereal they’re eating for breakfast, and inviting me to their Mafia Wars or their virtual farm. I’d say I also hope we can all take a deep collective breath before sharing knee-jerk reactions to something like Dunn’s death. But that’s about as likely as me rounding up all of my Facebook friends for a barbeque. Or at least the ones who haven’t deleted me already.