Social media is changing the way we express grief and experience death. We seem to both feel increasingly comfortable sharing more about our personal lives on the internet while also establishing relatively arbitrary or digitally dictated social mores around what is acceptable. The issue of permanence is now both a mortal and digital concern. How has social media effected how we die and grieve?
Most visibly, the internet has provided an interesting forum for how quickly death (in particular) is disseminated: people share and re-share links to death statistics (a loved one’s or famous person’s passing, a massive tragedy, a warzone update, etc.) with sometimes no or little context. I was recently asked about the resurgence of “death hoaxes,” a concept I was previously unfamiliar with, but occurs when someone anonymously and inaccurately reports the death of someone else on the internet or social media (most recently Mark McGrath… and for those of us in late 20’s/early 30’s you may recall the OG of death hoaxes of Stephanie Tanner aka Jodie Sweetin from Full House? When I was in 3rd grade there was a rampant rumor that she had been decapitated in a car accident!). People who initiate death hoaxes know that they won’t need to do a whole lot of “work” to ensure the information goes viral instantly. They can simply post it anonymously and sit back and wait for results.
Death is a matter-of-fact condition that is easier to prove (and harder to speculate upon) than other forms of gossip. Therefore, to stage a death hoax one must rely upon extremely fast forms of communication. We are all on our devices and constantly engaged in social media, if something sensational like a person’s death is broadcast, it is re-posted and shared almost instantly. When you hear someone has died, you typically do not question it, especially if any semi-plausible details are provided. For a rumor or hoax to be “successful” it has to be something people are not going to question and readily share with others. Even if someone is 12 times removed from the initial source, they will stand behind it with as much authority as the initiator of the rumor, so it continues to carry the same strength as it spreads. If you think about other celebrities who have died recently, like Robin Williams, when people found out they immediately re-shared the information, posted videos, articles, and sentiments even though it was probably a random post or source that they initially learned about it from. Compared to a post about Miley Cyrus dating someone or smoking pot, I would not re-post that nor would I assume it was true. So a death hoax gets the most bang for the buck in that respect. Even though someone’s death being a hoax is relatively easy to refute, having to refute your own death could be very harrowing and distressing for the victim as well as their loved ones.
Death evokes high emotions and as humans, we tend to get some enjoyment from riding those highs. It stirs up gossip, which is really just a form of communion, social interaction, and helps us form bonds and connections. It brings people together, gets them talking, reflecting on life, and interacting. As social beings we generally like a good excuse to be social, and for better or for worse, a person’s death can provide that— especially a celebrity who we are removed enough from that it doesn’t tend to paralyze us as a tragedy or make us depressed. We “know” them enough for it to evoke strong feelings and maybe force us to reflect more on our own lives and relationships. It also makes for a good story, and humans love stories and storytelling. When someone famous dies, even if we were never really interested in them before they died, we can read about them, check out their Wikepedia page, learn about their families and lives, and develop almost a retrospective relationship with them as a character. Social media has probably also fueled this interest because it allows us to find out so much more about people even after they’ve died.
I have several friends who have died and still have active Facebook accounts. People still post photos and comments on their walls. It feels both creepy and sweet. They are being memorialized; their account made into a shrine. However it also is somewhat disconcerting to get an update from someone who is no longer alive. Facebook now allows users to establish a “legacy contact,” someone identified prior to death to take over your account in wake of your passing. If you chose to set up a legacy contact, they would be able to change your profile photo, accept friend requests, and post announcements on your account’s timeline after Facebook receives notice of your death. A legacy contact is identified as such and won’t be able to post as the account that they’re controlling or be able to view your private messages. Presumably they can clean up your account and potentially keep your virtual spirit alive. It’s a strange concept to care about in the first place, however most people have such a virtual timeline and presence it also is perhaps a sign of the times to come. The internet provides both a permanent and ever changing march of information and cataloging; so much of our lives are now made digital. Many of us, across many cultures, fight the concept by death by trying to find ways to “live on” after we have deceased. The internet provides a new forum for doing so.
The way we mourn and express grief has also seemed to shift in the glow of the screen conscious world. We “like” images of the deceased or the post about succumbing to illness—but only if it is done in an uplifting way. Liking has become a form of emotional support rather than an actual preference or enjoyment for the information. However if the information being shared is purely tragic and the uplifting or positive spin cannot be found, people are literally left with fewer options of how to respond. When things are not “liked” or commented upon, they tend to get drowned out in the newsfeed. If you want tragedy to be electronically immortalized or at least to reach some relevancy, you’re obliged to find the bright side. Reportedly, Facebook has considered developing a “sympathize” button to address the forced positivity. Nevertheless it’s interesting to note the how human emotion and experience is attempted to be represented and conveyed digitally. Social media allows us to express ourselves digitally and also shapes how we express ourselves in the virtual world.
We all have potentially different ways of relating to and processing death. From a psychological perspective, when it comes to social media, sharing one’s feelings about death can provide both a validating and distressing experience. In conclusion, death continues to be a baffling fact of digital and virtual life and social media provides yet another new frontier – now for how we value and recognize mortality itself.