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Not Waving But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.


Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
- "Not Waving but Drowning," Stevie Smith, 1957

When I read this morning about the woman who tweeted while her 2-year-old son was drowning in a swimming pool, the words to Stevie Smith’s poem went through my head.

On the surface, the poem bears little resemblance to the tragedy that occurred in Florida yesterday, despite the topic of drowning. But on another level, Stevie Smith's words perhaps do speak to what we are all doing when we obsessively broadcast the details of our lives in 140-character bursts. We think we are waving to the world, when we’re really trying to avoid drowning in an ocean of distractions and self-absorption.

I’m not going to pass judgement on the poor woman. I hope she finds peace. I cannot blame her for feeling compelled to Tweet while her son was drowning and her life changing forever. We all do it -- every time we update our Facebook status to say we're having a bad day or Tweet about what we're eating for lunch. God knows, I even Tweeted during my Convocation ceremony earlier this year. It’s our way of validating our existence in an increasingly distracted world. We're shouting out, “Hey, look at me, I’m over here, waving!”

In 2006 I was at a conference in Palo Alto listening to the keynote speaker talk about a new technology called “Twitter” that allowed you to send out short text messages over the Web to people who "followed" you. What could we use that technology for? he asked us. We looked back at him blankly -- no one could really think of a useful purpose for it back then.

Three and a half years later, that seems laughable. It's obvious what Twitter's main purpose is: it's our way of waving at the world, even if we're really drowning.

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