New rules needed for Facebook of the dead

Online responses to death veer away from empathy into competitive mourning

Taking to Facebook moments after discovering the death of an acquaintance does not allow time to consider how a family might perceive these messages. Photograph: PA

Taking to Facebook moments after discovering the death of an acquaintance does not allow time to consider how a family might perceive these messages. Photograph: PA

 

Recently, I was one of the first to arrive on the scene of an tragic incident in which a woman died. Though local, I did not know the woman. However, by 7am the next morning I knew her name and what she looked like because we have mutual friends who shared news of her death on social media.

Opening Facebook on my phone, her image was staring back at me, frozen in time. She was smiling, vivacious, happy. Someone’s friend, co-worker. A mother. The woman’s image suddenly took my breath away. She had children. And it’s possible those children did the same thing I did. Woke up in the morning, automatically checked Facebook and saw a picture of the woman who bore them, raised them, loved them staring back with the letters “RIP” above her image. Perhaps it was a comfort to see her photo shared and shared and shared again. Or maybe this image of their smiling mother only caused them pain.

Repeatedly throughout the day, I watched as photographs and messages flooded Facebook. In many of these posts, they tagged the deceased meaning every post lamenting her death – all the comments and photos, shared memories and emojis – were seen by all her Facebook “friends”.

Yet as the day progressed, gradually my discomfort increased as multiple stories of friendship no longer read like grief or sympathy. Expressions of sympathy seemed to wane as one post became two, became three. As individuals shared another photo, another remembrance, their mourning began to look different. It looked competitive.

Sharing a space with someone

Anecdotes are the currency with which people trade at funerals. Yet, when standing in a room with the family of a lost loved one, we do not repeatedly approach to share our stories of the deceased or the last words they spoke to us. When sharing a space with someone, it is much more likely that we offer simple, respectful condolences.

We do this once. We understand that repeated expressions of sorrow are unhelpful, even uncomfortable. When sharing a space with someone who is grieving, it is easier to gauge how our own feelings regarding the deceased might be construed by others closer to them.

Taking to Facebook moments after discovering the death of an acquaintance, however, does not allow time to consider how a family might perceive these messages.

Research by the University of Oxford Internet Institute predicts the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook within 50 years

Writers on social media can sometimes appear unconcerned by emotional responses unless they are “likes”. Indeed, news of the woman’s death was already on Facebook within two hours of the incident; shared by a local who was, at the time, on holiday in the Mediterranean.

Shared before the woman’s own daughter – who was still in school – was informed of her mother’s death. This girl could easily have discovered news of her mother’s death while idly scrolling through social media. Instead, she was told that evening having been taken to the house of a family friend; a house where the friend’s 10-year-old brother already knew the outcome of the incident. Yet, rather than say anything, he allowed his sister’s friend more time without the burden of her mother’s death. He said nothing because the girl, “looked happy”.

It is concerning that a 10-year-old boy can display greater emotional awareness than those old enough to wield a keyboard and Facebook account. Yet it’s not just in the immediate aftermath of loss that people comment, share, tag and reminisce.

Engage with the dead

Months and years later, individuals continue to engage with the dead on Facebook. And this is a phenomenon that is only likely to increase as research in the Big Data & Society journal by the University of Oxford Internet Institute published on April 23rd predicts the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook within 50 years.

Unless family members apply to Facebook for the removal of the deceased’s accounts, they will continue to see posts involving lost loved-ones. This is something that could be deeply upsetting for close family and friends who see the deceased alive and happy as they scroll through Facebook; tagged by another acquaintance who thinks nothing of others’ emotional responses.

No doubt, many will say, “Well don’t look at Facebook”. But in today’s society, social media is now so much a part of our lives – for young and old. It is difficult to break an ingrained habit; especially at a time of grief when routine can be comforting.

The simpler solution of how we deal with death on social media lies with the people behind the keyboards. Yes, it is tempting to be the first to offer condolences or heartening remembrances. But before doing so, can we not take a moment, an hour, a day. Stop and think. Express ourselves considerately, simply and without trying to outdo one another. We must think of those left behind.

As we negotiate this age of social media, we must learn to be as respectful of the living as we are of the dead.

Hannah McNiven is a Wexford-based writer and and teacher

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