The Blog

Sad News in the Social Era

It’s not groundbreaking to say that Facebook has become the platform of choice for sharing (and over-sharing) major life moments. It’s the first place I learn about engagements, marriages, pregnancies, grad school acceptances, promotions, births, injuries, and loss. Since so much of this news is joyous, I’m happy to hear it, regardless of platform, and eager to have an easy place to “like” the news and share fond words.

However, when the news is sad, difficult to hear, or highly personal, what does the broadcasting, sharing, and engagement-inviting nature of Facebook mean for family and friends?

Recently, a friend of a friend who I knew well passed away suddenly and under challenging circumstances. Within 48 hours of her passing, my newsfeed was full of new photos of her as her friends tagged new pictures that I certainly wasn’t prepared to see. More disturbing, was reading items in my newsfeed like “[Deceased Friend] is now friends with 47 people.” Facebook pages as memorials and tribute groups have seemingly become part of the normal way we grieve today, but do they help or hurt the process? Social media offers so many new ways for us to share, remember, and learn about our loved ones, however often some of these options are not by choice as newsfeeds pull them into our stream regardless and force constant reminders of a loss — especially immediately after a loss and before a family has worked with Facebook to memorialize or close an account.

Some ways that social media has changed the way we mourn include:

Announcing Loss, Sharing News, and Mourning the Dead

Much news was made of the fact that within two hours of his announced death, the “Osama Bin Laden is DEAD” Facebook page had 150,000 fans and became a large forum for people from around the world to discuss the news. However, often similar groups or pages are started by survivors of the less famous (or infamous) deceased immediately after learning of a loss.

The creation of these groups means that there is a central but virtual location for those who want to gather, console, and mourn together. Stories can be shared and wherever you are in the world, you have the opportunity to be with others in a trying time. On the flip side, it also means you may learn of a friend’s passing by being invited to a group intended for mourning instead of a more personal channel; this happens often enough today that it doesn’t seem surprising, even though it’s arguably in poor taste and awkward. Or, you may not be ready to read the memories of your loved one that virtual strangers have to share — we present different versions of ourselves online so life after death could present our loved ones IRL with new facts or information about our cyberselves. From a New York Times article earlier this year:

“It was a very strange feeling,” Dana Tonnies, Mac’s mother, told me, describing how she and her husband became aware of the swirl of activity attaching to her son’s online self. “I had no control over what was being said about him, almost immediately.” Dana and Bob Tonnies were close to their only son – in fact they had coffee with him, in a regular Sunday ritual, the morning before he died – but they had little contact with his digital self.

Seeking Evidence

After I got the call about my friend’s passing, I went on Facebook looking for signs. I reread what became her final status updates, went through her old photos, checked past notes she posted. I followed her Twitter stream looking for signs or indications that others or I had missed. Before this much self-published information was made available, I would have taken her death at face value, but with so much cached access to her thoughts and feelings, I couldn’t help but seek out more both to cope and out of, admitted, morbid curiosity.

This sort of investigative work is also at play when celebrities or public personas pass away. For example, when Jackass movie star, Ryan Dunn, died recently in a car crash, the public and media did the same thing – sharing a twitpic of him drinking before the crash itself. Presumptions had been made about drunk driving, but a toxicology report was needed to confirm this and with a final report sometimes taking months, this one twitpic was touted as evidence across the Internet.

Neither response is unsurprising, but the availability of so much more information allows us to dig and pry in ways we wouldn’t have before. The concept of “Rest in Peace” isn’t necessarily at play when we’re excavating a Twitter feed.