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Social Media and Death

Social Media's role in the end of life experience and how to navigate it.

Photo of Shauna Curry

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In the middle of high school, I changed schools when an old classmate died at 17; I found out through Facebook – through an R.I.P- post.  At first I thought it was a prank - luckily I didn't see it on twitter as I would have asked if it was a joke, which I initially thought it was - until the outpouring of comments began and I called up a friend (still at the school) to confirm.

What this experience did was change what death did mean to me?  Social media had become a first point of contact when being informed of the death of an old classmate. Later it would become a remembrance site for her friends and family.

This role social media plays in dealing with death and loss is explored in ABC article. It examines the complexity of death in social media in particular Facebook.

http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/death-on-social-media/6965664

It raised many questions for me around this grey area? Is social media (when related to death) a comfort or a menace?

On my old classmates memorialised Facebook page, a video was posted of her drinking (and the antics that followed) - that while I am sure was meant in good humour - her family was upset by. Personally, I think that the laws or social conduct around Facebooks memorialised accounts is still an issue - with rules or guideline need to be put in a pop-up notification or at the top of the account to prevent such events occurring (especially over simple misunderstandings) that can turn the memorialised account into a war zone.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

There must be boundaries or outlines to help users navigate death on social media.

If you participated in an End of Life Storytelling Event, tell us which Chapter or city you came from:

Sydney, Australia

13 comments

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Photo of Hongbo Guo

Hi Shauna, I think you have a very interesting perspective. Social media does have its advantages and disadvantages regarding the spread of information. In virtual world, people would tend to be suspicious about the authenticity of information because we don't know much about the information sources. Real-name registration system could be a solution to that, because it regulates people should take responsibility for what they post or state. Or is it possible to establish a evaluation system so that reputation could be valued? What do you think?

Photo of Jes Simson

Hey Shauna, I'm sorry for your loss. I've also heard about the deaths of a few friends via facebook, and it's a pretty surreal experience.  Like you, I didn't know if it was a joke, until it became clear that it wasn't.  It's also an odd place to grieve, and to share stories.  While I think that sharing stories with friends is an invaluable part of the grieving process, facebook  (and other social media tools) have none of the intimacy of sharing those stories in person.  The stories you swap also change as your state of grief changes - facebook's permanence makes this difficult.  I've also struggled with Linkedin, where you get automatic notifications that people have reached work anniversaries.  It's super strange having these reminders that that person is no longer reaching those mundane, everyday goals (like keeping at a job for another year).  

Photo of Shauna Curry

Hi Jess,
I think you raise some amazing points. In particular, your part about the different stages of grief. I also have noticed that people grieve differently - some people focus on the good times to deal with grief, while at the same time people can still in a state of  shock and are not ready to hear about the good times .  I also find the mundane reminders shocking too. It was lovely to hear from you.

Photo of Ryan Garland

I found this a very thought provoking post and it certainly raises some issues around death and social media. I guess it opens up questions about should death be publicised on social media or should the family and friends be allowed to grieve in private? From my perspective the Family of the grieved should be allowed the option of closing down the social media page, suspending the social media page (i.e. Facebook Page) so no-one can post or to keep it open and allow people to keep posting. As social media increasingly affects peoples lives it will be interesting to see how this issue gets addressed.

Photo of James Takayesu

Social media is such a challenging medium to interpret across ages, cultures, and varying levels of intimacy.  This is only magnified by death turning the online present into a memorial that anyone can contribute to without regard to the impact their reflections might have on others.   This is a challenging space to manage, as you put.  It would be helpful to have some examples, both positive and negative, to better understand it. 

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Shauna for sharing. You raise an important question. Reading Joanna's post made me think of your question: https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/end-of-life/research/funeral-selfies/ It highlights the issue of mores, norms and rituals and how new media might challenge them.

Photo of Shauna Curry

I read the post around funeral selfies; thank you for posting the link. Another grey area in social media, which I found fascinating.

Photo of Shauna Curry

Thank you everyone that has commented!! You have raised even more questions for me around this area which is wonderful and I really enjoyed hearing other peoples stories. The more I research around this topic the more prevalent I find it in social media from bucket lists on Pinterest to memorialising pets on YouTube videos.   

Photo of Jane GAO

This is a good post that makes me ponder. Should everything post on the social media especially an R.I.P post? 

Photo of Marije Haas

Really interesting post! It does raise a lot of questions. When my mother died last year, I entered a really weird time at work. I had only told a few people (my boss namely) about what happened, and why I had to take some time off for the funeral and such (I live in a different country then my mother did). Upon my return, obviously people knew about what had happened – they avoided me like the plague. Nobody knew what to say, or how to behave. This is when I decided to put a post on my facebook account. I didn't have the energy to tell everyone in person what had happened, it is a personal thing, that you don't just bring up over a coffee, yet, I felt it would be good that people knew, and that they felt they could ask me about it, or offer condolences. So in this case it was very much about me, and my experience of loss...

Photo of Nancy Shapiro Rapport

This is such an important post. The experience of learning someone died on social media is a challenging one. Having a protocol for sharing that kind of sensitive information strikes me as something that would need to be spearheaded by the various social media sites. I'm curious to see what that could look like. 

Photo of Lauren

Thanks for sharing this story Shauna. Newspaper obituaries were once the place where people would be notified of someone's death within a community, with newspaper slowly becoming obsolete social media is now where we find out of someone's death.  At times, memorial posts about someone who has died are thoughtful and loving, and other times they are posted in mean sprites and can cause great harm to family and friends. I agree there should be boundaries and outlines to help families and friends navigate what content is posted about the person who has died to protect their memory.  

Photo of OpenIDEO

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