A Facebook Story: Ian Shapira profiles a woman's life and death

Dec 10, 2010

Post reporter Ian Shapira will be online to discuss his latest article, "A Facebook story: A mother's joy and a family's sorrow," in which he documents Shana Greatman Swers' Facebook profile to follow the medical odyssey that turned the ecstasy of childbirth into a struggle for life.

This is easily one of the most beautifully written stories I've ever seen in the Post - I've been reading for years, and this is the first one that's made me cry. Thank you, Ian, for telling it so well.

Welcome everyone to our online chat about today's story on Shana Greatman Swers, a 35-year-old Gaithersburg woman who narrated her pregnancy and post-pregnancy complications on Facebook. I'll start off the discussion with this very nice comment from a reader who praised the writing. A huge credit must be given of course to Shana -- it was her story, and we conceived of the structure.

Did you ever feel like maybe you weren't doing your job as a reporter/storyteller? On the one hand, we're getting about as intimate as we can be with Shana -- we're getting the raw data, the untouched facts, from her perspective in her status updates. On the other hand, we're not getting anything deeper -- nothing beyond what she posted on Facebook, nothing that a reporter would be expected to get. As a photojournalist, I pressure myself to go the extra mile and try to get deeper. It doesn't always work, but I do try. And I feel like, apart from a new -- if gimmicky -- storytelling format, nothing elevates this piece to go above and beyond the surface of a very tragic story.

This is one of the challenges my editor Marc Fisher and I discussed before doing the story. And we felt that, ultimately, for the experimentation to be as true and organic as possible, we wanted to not intrude too much. We purposely avoided interfering too much. Yes, the reader needed some guidance, so we provided that with several annotations. And I do think those annotations, and our editing, transform what was once her Facebook page to an actual story. We  made decisions on what to cut, what to preserve, and what to annotate.  Perhaps we could have added more annotations, but then again, I wanted to show readers how Shana herself communicated her own story. If I helped the reader out too much I feared that it would take away from the experience and perspectives of her friends who had been following her ordeal in real time. It's a good debate and maybe it would have more powerful if we had gone more heavy with annotations. But, based on what readers are writing me, I feel very satisfied.

Mr. Shapira, first, congratulations on your thorough and what must have been difficult to report piece. I thought it was an innovative way to use a site like Facebook and I've not seen it done before (correct me if I'm wrong, Internet peoples). I feel conflicted because while this particular piece feels fresh, to see it more often would feel gimmicky and oversimplified. The info is short bytes that are easy to digest, but these are largely not a reporter's words, which isn't different from using straight up quotes, I know. Also, you're limited in the number of stories you could find this way to friends, public profiles, etc. If you could respond? Was this a story that HAD to be told or was it a good story that was easy to present in this way? I'd also be interested to know why you selected the commenters you did and how you got their comments alone to show up in the threads. Many thanks.

Dear Conflicted,

I agree with you that this model, if used over and over again, could start to feel gimmicky. But the truth is I couldn't find anything that had been done like this before, at least not by the Washington Post or our competitors. I did find a great video on Gizmodo about the imagined narrative of one man's life, but that was different than what we did with this project. I understand that you may think it's less of a story because there were less of my words, but then again, this is an experiment. We were trying something new. Would we have written a straight-up profile of Shana and her medical ordeal for the Post? I don't know. What elevated her predicament was the way she and her friends talked so openly about such an inherently private matter -- and not only that, they were talking in real time, as she was in the hospital, or heading back to the ER, or already in the ER, and posting from her iPhone. So, the story had to be told from that angle because it embodies something much broader about how we are all communicating these days. The story was about Shana, yes, but in a way, the story was about something much more universal. 

I admit, I was skeptical of this story's format when I started reading, but I was in tears by the time I finished the piece. What struck me most was the contrast between pretty mundane Facebook updates and the astonishing tragedy that was unfolding at the same time. My heart goes out to Ms. Swers's  family. How/why did you decide to tell this story in this format? How was the family approached with the idea, and was there any hesitation in sharing the story?

My wife Caroline Turner Shapira works at the Corporate Executive Board, and was colleagues with Shana. After Caroline showed me Shana's Facebook page, I was immediately blown away by the way Shana narrated everything and the way people commented back. I ended up emailing Jeff Swers, Shana's husband, shortly after the funeral. I was a little nervous, thinking it might be too soon for him to talk about a story in the Post. But, Jeff was into the idea from the start and wanted the public to know the kind of support network that helped keep them afloat during this crisis. I should also say that Shana's colleagues at the Corporate Executive Board have been especially supportive to him and the whole family.

As a junior in college, a student journalist and an avid Facebook user, this story touched me; not only because of the amazing struggle and story, but because of the story's medium. It really turns things around to see these Facebook status updates firsthand, as if each statement were from our own Facebook friend. Facebook is increasingly becoming the common denominator among Americans today. It doesn't matter that I don't know Shana personally -- the medium helped me to feel a sense of identity and compassion with her and her family. Bravo for realizing how Facebook can invoke an unparalleled perspective on emotion, a perspective we can't normally find on our daily newsfeeds. That said, from a journalist's perspective, how did you ultimately decide to tell her story in this medium? When you pitched this story, what were your editor's initial concerns? And even further, what problems arose telling a story in this manner that you wouldn't have come across with a standard news story? What did the Post talk about internally before this story went public? Last year, I published a story about the grieving process on Facebook through my school's student newspaper, The Pitt News.  It's certainly a multi-dimensional topic and something that will continue to evolve in future generations. Thank you, Vaughn Wallace

Dear Vaughn,

Thanks for writing and sending the link to your own Facebook story about a similar subject. I think we struggled mainly with what to keep in, what to leave out. Do we delve deeply into her medical complications and the experience at the hospitals and dealing with doctors? My editor Marc Fisher had no concerns at all -- in fact, he and several editors in the Post newsroom all were advocating for this story from the start. I wanted to write a standard story along with publishing an edited, annotated Facebook page, but Marc persuaded me that we should let the Facebook page stand on its own, and speak largely for itself. I am glad we went that route because it makes the experimentation stand out even more.

One other thing: Grace Koerber, who just started at the Post as an online graphics designer and Greg Manifold, a senior news designer,slaved away on design and executed it. They deserve a huge amount of credit for this project.

How is Jeff Swers?

Jeff is understandably heartbroken. But, as he told me the other day, he is pushing onward to live his life because that's what Shana would want him to do. He is busy raising their son Isaac, and has resumed his job at a local biotetch company.

Was it difficult for you to write this story? I read it this morning and literally cried. It shows the fragility of life and it was written with such passion.

It was hard writing the story in the sense that there was so much material to include. How do you know what to leave in and what to leave out? Also, I only wanted to annotate the comments of friends who I could reach on the phone to make sure they were okay with their Facebook comments being re-published in the Washington Post. And once I got their permission, I interviewed them about how they knew Shana and what they were thinking and feeling at the time of their Facebook comments on Shana's Facebook page.

I found the entire saga a la Facebook to be a horribly sad commentary on human contact (or the lack thereof) related to the death of this woman. What was missing from her end of life seemed to be personal contact. Human touch, warmth, voice, tears, laughter, I don't now - being surrounded by life and love seemed to be missing. Chronicling the most intimate moments of a life ending by this very public and casual means made me sad for a woman that appeared to be grasping at, what? What exactly do you get from this sort of public display? At the point where the situation went from exciting announcement to dire, it seems the public channel should have been turned off. And then for her husband to continue on her FB page with the "after" was morbid. I feel for that husband, the child who will never know his mother, and the woman's mother, family and friends. I do not, however, understand the obsession some people have with putting their laundry, all of the laundry out for public consumption.

I thought I'd publish this comment just to air the other side of this whole debate. This criticism has been a mainstay of those who look down on Facebook and see it as the unfortunate substitute of human-to-human contact. But let me say this: In a previous era when people didn't have smart phones and Facebook applications, maybe Shana would have suffered this ordeal more alone. She would have never have seen or heard from friends, even those just beyond her inner circle, while she was going through this crisis. Facebook enabled her to connect, even in the most troubling of moments and I imagine that sustained her immensely. Also, Jeff's comments on her page after she had passed away might be morbid to you, but you have to remember that that, for him, her page is a real, live, breathing thing. It was a way for him to talk with her.

Thank you for letting Shana tell her story. I knew Shana in college, and was following up with her Facebook page but - like some of her closer friends, it seems - had no idea how serious her situation was, and was truly shocked on October 31 to see that she had passed away. I'm wondering why - at the end of the story - you didn't include some information about how she died. Apparently her condition, peripartum cardiomyopathy, occurs more frequently than people are aware of. Thank you, again.

Always good to hear from a friend of Shana's. In the online version we included a hyperlink to a government web site explaining her condition and we do say that she was suffering from heart failure -- that her heart was not pumping enough blood.

I actually found this more moving in the format you presented it in than if you had dug deeper, as the other commenter wondered. I read through it this morning and hours later I still feel sad...I have this pit in my chest. There's something about seeing it in her/her family's/her friends' eyes that made this hit home more than any traditional article could. I'm sure you'll get emails from people lamenting the use of Facebook for these purposes (and lamenting the Post for calling it news), but I found it moving and heartbreaking. I need to go find some rainbows if I'm going to shake this sadness.

I feel like this comment reflects the bulk of email I've been getting.

Hi Ian. Thank you for this story. It was quite emotional and though my question isn't related to the details of the narrative, I want to convey my deep sympathy for the Swers family in the face of their loss. As a social media professional and a writer, I spend a lot of time griping about what I usually dub the ever-growing "approximation" of real life through the growing scope of social media outlets. On Facebook, for example, pictures, videos, status updates, profile details and more combine online where they create a kind of cyber-persona - one that, in most cases, is intended to approximate the identity of a human being in real life. Your story was particulary interesting to me in that it dealt with a woman who was very vitally linked to Facebook. It was presented as a (or perhaps, the) main mode of communication with those closest to her. I'm wondering whether, in editing her Facebook feed, you felt as though her status updates and the responses to them truly did convey the reality of the situation of her life; basically whether this is, in your opinion, an example of social-media-approximating-real-life or social-media-as-real-life. I'm also just curious as to your thoughts on what stories like this mean for journalism. Of course, a journalist's role always includes framing the story, but usually it also falls on the journalist to tell the whole story as well. In this case it seems that social media might be changing this paradigm, as here we see a subject who is able to tell her own saga, even after death. Any thoughts on this?

I think what this means for journalism is that we can tell stories in all kinds of ways -- and that narratives do not always have to have the same structures. I think we should be careful about using this model over and over again. Maybe this story doesn't tell the whole story --- but what story really ever does?

Just wanted to say how this brought tears to my eyes. One day, Isaac will be able to read his mother's own words about how enthusiastic she was to be his mom - what an amazing use of technology (and not likely Shana's purpose in posting). May her memory be a blessing to her family.

One day when Isaac is older, I wonder if Facebook will be around or how it will change, or how it will become even more woven into our lives. One of the great things about Facebook now is that we all are telling stories in bits and pieces when we frequently post status updates. It just so happens Shana was telling the story of her greatest moment and her most harrowing moments all in one compact span of time, and all via the vehicle that so many of us are using these days.

Very well written. Goosebumps and tears at the very end. Without knowing, Shana has left her son something remarkable to remember her.

Well, that's it everyone. Thanks for talking with me today about this story. If you have any feedback or other story ideas on related topics, definitely shoot me a message here at the Post, shapirai@washpost.com. Or, go on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ianshapira

 

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Ian Shapira
Ian Shapira is a local enterprise reporter.
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