Death on Social Media: A Virtual Living-Dead

When the creators of Facebook first produced a social networking website designed to connect people to people, they simultaneously produced an opportunity to connect people to the deceased. While death on Facebook is only one medium in which recent technological advancement is problematic, its impact is felt in a variety of forms.

Facebook has altered the ways in which death is processed, communicated, and shared. It is a virtual reality that resembles a sort of living reality in problematic ways. Individuals navigate informing groups of people on the death of a loved one through status updates, sharing pictures, and writing on the deceased profile wall. It often elicits an immediate response from individuals whose lives were touched by the deceased in one way or another. It provides a medium for individuals who know the deceased to express their condolences apart from the mortuary ritual, and gives those who do not attend it a place to grieve within a virtual community. Another layer of complexity is added when people interpret others’ Facebook posts or comments on the deceased without knowledge of their relationship to the deceased. While posting something for one person may be cathartic, another may view it as disrespectful. This is one area where individual worldviews can be disputed.

In my experience, posting comments about the cause of death is extremely controversial especially in cases of unexpected deaths. This leads to a number of questions on what is considered respectful to the deceased in virtual forums. Facebook has a peculiar paradoxical quality of seeming both private and public. If we take this problem further we encounter how the mere existence of the deceased profile affects the living.

Facebook acknowledges these kinds of issues by providing information in its Help Center.

Societies develop rituals to deal with the process of death. Is Facebook beneficial or detrimental in allowing unlimited access to grief and mourning?

2 responses to “Death on Social Media: A Virtual Living-Dead

  1. Pratyusha Mutyala

    This paragraph from the article that Bri posted is especially powerful. It triggered memories of when I had lost my own cousin-brother earlier this year. Because we had grown up separately- in two different worlds- his Facebook profile was almost the only medium I had for a couple of things: to announce to the world that I had lost someone so dear to me, to learn of his life -every single aspect of it– things I would have missed on his FB profile otherwise had he not passed away, and the impact that he had made in people’s lives during his 20 years of existence. The day after I had learned of his tragic death, there was an influx of nearly 500 posts on his FB wall from his friends and classmates in school. I had heard that nearly the entire school attended his memorial service the following day. I learned of how truly special he was to so many of his friends solely through social media. The only individuals who would not make a public announcement for the longest time was my family. Just as in the article, our grief felt private, personal, and like something only we as Mutyala’s would understand. I was the first of my family to make a status on Facebook. However, instead of posting the status and forgetting about it I hate to admit this but I remember compulsively checking my notifications to see how many people liked and/or commented on my post. It was almost as if receiving all of these comments/ likes on the status I posted about him would affirm how valuable Varun was as an individual and how unbelievably tragic his death was. Bri is right in that Facebook most certainly has a paradoxical quality of being both private and public. However, I know for a fact that no social media can every depict nor can anyone ever truly understand the depth of grief that I felt that day and the void that I still feel in my life without him.

  2. Alissa Marilyn Peterson

    I think this is a great example of a continued relationship with the deceased. To be honest, Facebook and death make me feel uncomfortable. I agree with Brianna in that there is an interesting paradoxical quality of Facebook. It feels both public and private. I personally feel as though people use it to give too many personal, intimate details in general, but with death I think it can serve a purpose. Facebook has turned into a kind of virtual cemetery. Thirty million people have outlived their profiles. Sometimes these profiles become memorials. I think this can have all sorts of different effects on the living. It can be either painful, cathartic, disrespectful, or a mix of them all. It’s complicated because Facebook activity regarding the dead has not yet become fully ritualized. There is no one standard thing to do. Facebooks of the deceased make me uncomfortable because you can see pictures of them, things they commented and where they were right before they died. Is it denial to send messages to a deceased loved one’s Facebook? Are you pretending they are still alive? Facebook also interestingly enough has a memorial setting that can change a profile to take out more intimate information and to turn it into a page controlled by close family or friends. It also will disable suggestions like “people you may know” or “tag a friend.” This phenomenon has become so problematic that companies like “My Wonderful Life” have been founded in order to help plan your digital legacy. Another thing Facebook leads to is seeing more death. Facebook also keeps you in contact with people you wouldn’t keep up with otherwise. Because of this you will be aware of a larger number of deaths, which you otherwise would just never hear about. Facebook and death are incredibly complicated. Everyone has different desires about how they would want to be left online, but people don’t really think about or vocalize what they would want. What happens if people don’t know someone has died and they continue to wish them happy birthdays? That would probably just bring more pain to the loved ones. Or, is it helpful to mourn with a large group of “friends?”
    I really don’t know.

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