Thursday, 9 June 2011

Alice's Bucket List: A Cautionary Tale

Something a bit different on the Scrapbook today. I call it a scrapbook because I use it to keep together links to favourite bits and pieces I find lying around the Internet. This week a new site has burst onto the scene that looks like it's going to become legendary. Sadly, I can see it becoming legendary for all the wrong reasons. So please spare me a few minutes for this cautionary tale about the power of social media circa 2011 and my hopes that a 15 year old girl doesn't die regretting what she started.


I first spotted the link to Alice's Bucket List in my Twitter timeline early on Tuesday evening. The blog had only been up for a day and it already had around 800 followers and 400 replies to its only post. Even just reading the sub-heading and the About Me paragraph it becomes obvious just what a powerful experience you're letting yourself in for. Alice is 15 and has cancer. It's terminal. She's going to die before too long. She's come to terms with that. What she refuses to accept is that her life is over. Far from it. She has ambitions, lots of them. Some are quite modest, like getting her regrown hair looking presentable. Others are probably unachievable because she's considered too much of a risk to fly abroad. That doesn't stop her dreaming about them, though and her mum persuaded her to start a blog so her friends could have a diary of her adventures to remember her by.

Somehow Alice's blog went viral almost immediately. The comments section quickly filled with offers for almost everything on the list. Small businesses promised their services for free, Take That fans went off to tweet her favourite band to persuade them to meet her, big businesses found their inboxes full of Emails from random nobodies asking them to arrange stuff for some teenager from the Lake District.

Yet Alice asked for none of this. Her second post on Wednesday sounded flattered but embarrassed. So many respondents had asked Alice to place a donation button on her blog but she made it clear she would refuse to do so because she wasn't after anyone's money. In fact she hadn't even asked for anyone to offer her anything. She would have been happy to sort out all her events for herself. There was only one thing she really wanted everyone to do and that was register to become a bone marrow donor. I hope those labs all round the world are prepared for the surge in demand for registration kits they're now getting!

So now, within 3 days, Alice is on the way to fulfil most of her list. She can have as many hairdos, photoshoots and massages as she likes. She can pick and choose where she wants to take her caravan holidays. Top companies like Alton Towers and Cadbury's would hardly turn down the chance for some positive PR with the girl who melted the Internet. I expect you'll see her on every chat show going before the week's out.

As a reader, Alice's Bucket List was a shining example of a young girl's fighting spirit coupled with the generous nature of total strangers. A truly heartwarming tale for those days when you're feeling sorry for yourself and think the planet's full of morons. It's a sad backstory but a joyous read. What should now follow is the fun part as we learn about her adventures, smile at her photos and root for her to kick the Grim Reaper in the gonads.

The only problem is... now Twitter's got involved. Well meaning people are acting without thinking, a truth has been mutated into a lie and there's a real danger a backlash could be on its way.

Within 24 hours the number of blog followers has rocketed from 1000 to 5000 - all this for a site only launched this Monday, don't forget! Twitter-power seems to have led most of them there, as it had done for me. When I came to check my Twitter this morning, #alicebucketlist was the number 2 trending topic worldwide. Fantastic... until you see what's actually being tweeted so much:






  
For everyone who doesnt know, the #alicebucketlistis for a girl with terminal cancer, who wanted to be a TT for her bucket list
Oh does she? Here's the link for the blog: http://alicepyne.blogspot.com - read it thoroughly and tell me EXACTLY where she says she wants to be a trending topic. Here's a clue - she doesn't. It's a lie made up on Twitter, probably not even maliciously. Most likely someone who genuinely thought they were helping by raising her profile.

I've removed the name of the person who tweeted that because I don't believe he or she is Tweeter Zero for this lie. It's just the one whose tweet has been picked up the most and has been retweeted so much it comes out at the top of the search. Having read the person's timeline to research this, there's an admission (when questioned by someone else who shares my point of view) he or she got fed false information but then it went out of control as to how much it got retweeted. That's a fair point and I'm glad this person accepts being wrong.

The problem is we're all guilty of having those moments when we just want to latch onto the dramatic headline instead of checking the facts. "15 year old dying of cancer determined to achieve her ambitions" is a truly upsetting thought. We look at the teenagers in our lives and think there but for the grace of whatever higher power we may or may not believe in. We hit the retweet button because that's the easy thing to do. It's harder to actually force yourself to read the story, find out the truth. Maybe because, in this case, it means facing up to your own mortality and that of those around you.

Read the blog again. I'll even repeat the link if you can't be arsed to scroll up for it. http://alicepyne.blogspot.com

What does Alice REALLY want now? She's got most of her activities sorted, she doesn't want your cash. What she wants is for you to become a bone marrow donor. Go and search #alicebucketlist on Twitter and how many tweets mention this? Virtually none of them. Hardly any even link to the blog. Yet you get hundreds like this which serve absolutely no purpose:
#ALICEBUCKETLIST #ALICEBUCKETLIST#ALICEBUCKETLIST #ALICEBUCKETLIST #ALICEBUCKETLIST#ALICEBUCKETLIST #ALICEBUCKETLIST
(Again, name removed to protect the guilty.)

I mentioned about the danger of a backlash and Alice regretting starting the blog. That's because I've seen all this before. Back in the 1990s, when those geeks who had that new invention called Internet had to put up with an ear-splitting crackling noise when they wanted to go on it and then could squeeze in a 4 course meal waiting for a photo to load, there was a little boy named Craig Shergold. Craig had a brain tumour, quite a nasty one. In fact he, too, was expected to die. To cheer him up, friends and family started a campaign to get him in the Guinness Book of Records for receiving the most get well cards. This was a fantastic success and not only did he get his record it also caught the attention of a wealthy philanthropist who was able to pay for top of the range surgery which put his seemingly terminal cancer into remission.

Then the Internet got hold of the story. Craig Shergold became Craig Sheppard/Sherwood/Shefford/any other surname beginning with She. Get well cards morphed into business cards/postcards/assorted other tat which not only the Shergold family had to find ways to get rid of, but also wasted the time of the Make A Wish Foundation who had no use of them and no other involvement with Craig. The little boy in the story stayed 9 and terminally ill forever. The real Craig got better, grew up and just wanted to get on with his life.

Here's Craig's story on Urban Legends.

The TT lie shows that Alice Pyne's story has already started to mutate. There are the first rumblings of doubt that it's a con. No doubt the "why is she more deserving than others" spitefulness will follow. Is this hassle what we want for her? Unlike Craig she may well not get that miracle cure. She could only have months left. Do we really want to see her and her family using up that valuable time fending off unwanted attention, no matter how well-meant it started off as?

The main thing that leaps out from Alice's blog is how willing total strangers are to offer their time and services for free when they're inspired to. Despite now having her pick of businesses from much nearer home, people aren't being put off volunteering themselves for whatever they can help with. Genuine offers are coming in from all round the world, even though Alice clearly states she's not fit to fly. She's surely unable to take up every single opportunity which leads to another thought - how many other Alices are out there? Will these kindly people just turn their backs if she says "thanks but no thanks" or will they be inspired to find someone more local to them who would also enjoy their generosity?

Most "Alices" don't write blogs, certainly not ones that take the Internet by storm in 3 days. They might have conditions it's harder to empathise with, like mental illness. They don't even have the confidence ask for things they'd really love. They just get on with life but that doesn't mean they wouldn't appreciate a random act of kindness like the gutsy Alice Pyne is lucky enough to get.

I'll be cheering Alice on all the way. I hope she sails through her list and adds loads more to it. I hope the excitement boosts her immune system and gives her more precious time with her loved ones. Then when the Grim Reaper finally dares set foot in Alice's house he comes out of it battered, bloody and a whimpering wreck.

Alice is doing more living in her 15+ years than most people would do in 100. Any idiot can die.

There, I've said my bit. I'm not some social media guru. I don't have thousands of people hanging on my every word, so if you've made it this far thanks very much for your time. I've disabled comments as I don't want to have a debate. I've got more important things to do and so have you. Like going to find someone you can give a kind word to. Or doing what Alice wants and clicking this.