Death, Social Media & Me: The necessity of etiquette

During the Christmas holidays, I learned that a loved one had passed away. It’s an odd feeling, that initial surge of pain, followed by the worry of when ‘will that feeling will end.’ It’s a feeling I won’t go into detail to explain. Mostly because it’s unexplainable. If you’ve felt it before, you already know, and if you haven’t, you wouldn’t understand no matter of the literary or poetic virtuosity behind the keyboard.

Not that anyone I know on social media will know the above. I didn’t make any posts about it. In my mind, I couldn’t put it into words what I was feeling at the time, nor do justice to the women who had recently passed. Nor is social appreciation part of my grieving process. Putting condolences or messages about someone’s passing is something you do for a celebrity’s death – and after 2016 I don’t need to go into too much detail what that involves: putting a few words in a post about them, changing your profile picture, posting a few of their songs/passages of texts. It’s a simple social obituary.

To share the same sentiment and model used to morn celebrities with someone you knew personally doesn’t sit right with me, nor does them justice.

Above all, people put on social media cool things they have done, they want to show off with their own commentary. They post things as part of a greater impression management to be liked and to attract attention. For one thing, I don’t want to post that a family member had died for attention, or to seem cool. I don’t want Facebook likes to reward the hit of dopamine people feel when they get a like notification over the fact somebody I knew had died. But to me it seems that’s exactly what people are doing. It feels shallow, it doesn’t feel healthy.

There’s the other side too. What is the effect on people who find this terrible news of one of their loved ones on social media? There’s no control what state of mind they currently in, you can’t personalise the news to them, you leave them in the position of being in an empty elevator, walking down the street, or already stressed working on a deadline, only to learn that someone they cared for has died. Worst of all, you could be telling this person without the knowledge they will have the emotional support already around them. You’re telling someone life changing horrid news, throwing them down a well, and letting them fester on it.

It seems incredibly impersonal. The founders of Facebook envisaged a like-for-like reflection of real world society. But some things Facebook cannot copy. Facebook cannot hug, Twitter cannot console. We are humans, we shouldn’t be expected to grieve like a computer. We can’t transfer our emotions into a string of 1’s and 0’s, run it through an algorithm and produce a response. Some things just can’t be done through a computer. On a similar stream, why would I want a large company to data-mine how people grieve? After being on the advertising side of Facebook and all of the demographic sections you can target, do I want to give Facebook the option of ‘show this to people grieving?’. It’s perfectly doable, computer scientists have already built a computer model to identify the changes in language used when someone is distressed or emotionally compromised. I could imagine some, less ethically driven, marketing managers jumping the joy of thought of having a targeting demographic made up a section of the population in a current state of emotional instability.

Yet at the same time, I understand fully that news always travels on the channels most used. From letters to newspapers, to broadcast radio and television. So there is some expectation as social media grows into main news source that it would be used in this way. But the difference is that something that on other platforms used to be so private has become extremely and uncontrollably public. It’s an extremely new development which poses its own issues and considerations. On one hand, memorialization on sites such as Facebook have been shown to empower individuals marginalised by more traditional forms of memorialization and has helped people as part of the grieving process (Carroll & landry, 2010). At the same time, online gatherings of support have been found due to such news announcement. For example the community at /r/offmychest for example is based on advice, kind words, and sympathy. All of these developments in the distribution of such sad news has to be expected, but have yet to be really understood. But one thing is certainly clear. I’d still find out about such news outside of the social media ecosystem.

So envisage my dismay when I found out my grandmother had died on Facebook. Not face-to-face, not in a phone call, not even a text. Finding out through interpretive-dance would have been preferable – it would have at least aligned more with the woman I affectionately called Nan and her more mischievous ways. Instead I found out on the medium I would have least likely wanted to discover on.

The woman who introduced me to jam on crumpets, to an appreciation of watching the moon set over a Calder Valley skyline, a women whom I remember as nothing but caring, who never raised her voice, who for some reason had an exorbitant collection of small soaps in distinct glass jars. Gone. In no less than a sentence.

At the time I found out, I already knew her death would not be unexpected. She had unfortunately been suffering from a horrible form of Alzheimer’s for over 10 years, and at 78 years old wasn’t in the best of health. A few days before I had been warned she hadn’t been well.

But online, we are told to be cynical about all news, to double check the domain name, or to make sure someone hadn’t been fraped. Can you imagine how horrible that was, second guessing the death of your own grandmother? Had the deliverer of the news been playing a sick joke? Had she been fraped, was it really her behind her screen delivering the news? It was a horrible contradictory feeling, double guess everything on the internet vs. the unpleasant nature, immediacy and context of what you’re being told.

Knowing her condition, was no help either. My first reaction was to close the window. I wasn’t made to immediately deal with the news like you would have done if you was actively speaking to the other person. It’ was like Schrodinger’s cat in some way. She would have been dead and alive at the same time while that message or notification remains unread. The natural reaction for anyone is to defend yourself, and for me that meant closing the window. I learned I needed to deal with it after a while, and let the news sink in. But it’s a process which wasn’t made easier because it was on Facebook. In a way, I really resent the way I found out.

There is no real etiquette rules or pre-existing discussion of how death should be announced on social media. But it’s a grim discussion worth having, with your friends & family, and probably as a wider discussion overall. Because death is something that happens, something that is damaging, and the news of which really should be handled with care. It’s bemusing, when you Google ‘Death and Facebook’, you can see people are more worried about what will happen about peoples Facebook accounts when they die. Not that you’d be around to suffer the consequencies. People need to be more concerned about what happens when you find out about somebody else passing, which I argue, is a much bigger and important debate to be had.

 

Refs

Brubaker, J.R, Kivran-Swaine, F., Taber, L., & Hayes, G.R. (2012).Grief-Stricken in a Crowd. http://sm.rutgers.edu/pubs/brubaker-grief-icwsm2012.pdf

Carroll, B. & Landry, K. (2010). Logging On and Letting Out. Bulletin of Science, technology & society. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0270467610380006

Meshi, D., Morawetz, C., & Heekeren, H.R. (2013). Nucleus accumbens response to gains in reputation for the self relative to gains for others predicts social media use. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00439

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