When someone dies on social media, people gather around screens to pay respects.
Facebook mourning is the most common: people stop by the page and share memories and thoughts, tagging friends and family to create tiny vigils. The communing with the deceased seems very present and, as years pass, nothing changes. Friends and family still stop by, as memories come to mind, to relay how much a person meant to them. The dead is ever present, watching, but never responding, not even Liking.
But what does all this mean? Does our mourning online mean anything? Of course it does, which recent research is attempting to explore and understand. As Science Of Us shared earlier this week, the nature of our mourning changes by social media account. Facebook is very much as described but Twitter is perhaps the most indicative of death online.
Since the social network is a meshing of the private and public, interactions aren’t confined to the personal and your death becomes a bit of a bigger phenomena, happening outside of containment. Reactions generally happen in three ways online: the Facebook, familial, personal reaction; the symbolic reaction, that a person and their life represented something; and the boom of public interest, where strangers are drawn into the death to mourn with friends and to appreciate said person they didn’t know.
That last way is what separates Twitter from the rest as scientists find the format to be more fluid, a balancing of personal and impersonal.
Most of the time, Branstad says, that conversation turned from the deceased themselves and towards broader social issues, like gun control or suicide prevention. Other times, it was just a space to acknowledge tragedy: “One of the themes we often saw,” she says, “was this idea of youth lost — ‘It’s really sad and tragic that someone would die so young,’ this broader issue of memorializing young people.”
Regardless of the format or social destination, it’s refreshing to hear that people are reacting so respectfully and forming communities in death, continuing conversations about people. In that way, some will never die. It’s still a tragedy that they died, yes, but memorials will be built. Isn’t that nice? Sometimes people can be great.