Sometimes, just sometimes, a rose can rise through the manure in which social media unfortunately wallows. A little humanity that is, quite ironically, only possible through a digital world.
Take the retirement of English cricketer James Taylor this week.
On Monday, the promising Nottinghamshire batsman announced his immediate retirement from cricket after he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition.
Specifically, it was arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy; a malady with near-tragic form in British sport.
On March 17, 2012, a footballer called Fabrice Muamba collapsed during an FA Cup tie at Tottenham. He received numerous defibrillator shocks on the pitch and ambulance on the way to hospital. His heart had stopped and it would not start for 78 minutes.
Thanks to expert care he recovered almost completely; but not sufficiently to grant his initial wish of continuing his playing career.
At this point I’ll declare a personal interest. Fabrice was a likable, thoughtful and, as it turns out, talkative young player during my early days at Arsenal. He holds the record for the longest opening answer during any interview I have conducted.
To the bland, get-them-going question “How’s your season so far?” Fabrice responded with a reply exceeding seven minutes.
Ironically, his collapse was one of the few times I was truly hit by the hopeless detachment that social media can create. On a day off from a conference in New York, I decided to amble down Broadway for the afternoon.
Suddenly my Twitter timeline was filled with the news and “This looks bad”, “He’s not moving”, “Match abandoned”. It was the inevitable information vacuum that social media fills with commentary and repetition.
While I was helpless of course I felt I needed to be watching the scenes unfold, even on TV. Fabrice was nice guy, an Arsenal man and I knew him a little.
In fact, when I saw him again a year or so after that horrible afternoon I remember erroneously asking how he was three times in a two-minute conversation.
Typically, he suffered my stupidity with a smile.
Fortunately James Taylor did not experience the same fate and it was typical of Fabrice to tweet the 26-year-old this week. Two men connected by the calamity of cut-short career. They would probably have never met in real life but social media allowed them to bond in the most human way.
Likewise, Taylor’s posts have taken a philosophical slant in recent days. One suspects he’ll need that mindset once his story subsides and a chasm opens up where cricket used to be.
And that is the part where athletes who suffered an abrupt retirement can help each other. It is a notoriously tough challenge in all sports simply through advancing years and, one assumes, most of those spend some time preparing – mentally and financially.
Taylor’s reply mentioned meeting, I hope they do.
An emotional connection could create a physical meeting thanks to a simple tweet.
When it is done well, social media is a window on the world. Taylor was a dashing cricketer who played the game the right way; Fabrice was steely yet stylish midfielder who belonged in top-flight English football. The reaction to their retirements reflected the way they had carried themselves.
And, of course, digital has been the vessel to carry their humanity to a wider world this week.
It is been heartening story in every sense of the word.