Social media brings death back into public realm

New York, Aug 20 (IANS) Death and mourning are no longer a private matter as social media platforms like Twitter — with its ephemeral mix of rapid-fire broadcast and personal expression — is widening the conversation around death and mourning, sociologists say.

The social media is redefining how people grieve, noted the team from Seattle’s University of Washington (UW).

“It’s bringing strangers together in this space to share common concerns and open up conversations about death in a way that is really unique,” said doctoral student Nina Cesare.

To reach this conclusion, Cesare and Jennifer Branstad analysed the feeds of deceased Twitter users.

They found that people use the micro-blogging website to acknowledge death in a blend of public and private behaviour that differs from how it is addressed on other social media sites.

While posts about death on Facebook tend to be more personal and involve people who knew the deceased, Twitter users may not know the dead person, tend to tweet both personal and general comments about the deceased and, sometimes, tie the death to broader social issues — for example, mental illness or suicide.

The researchers used, a website that links social media pages of dead people to their online obituaries, to find deceased Twitter users.

They sorted through almost 21,000 obituaries and identified 39 dead people with Twitter accounts (the vast majority of entries are linked to Facebook or MySpace profiles).

The most common known causes of death among people in the sample were, in order, suicides, automobile accidents and shootings.

The team found that aome users maintained bonds with the dead person by sharing memories and life updates (“I miss cheering you on the field”).

Some posted intimate messages (“I love and miss you so much”), while others commented on the nature of the death (“So sad reading the tweets of the girl who was killed”).

Others expressed thoughts on life and mortality (“Goes to show you can be here one moment and gone the next”).

Some users made judgmental comments about the deceased (“Being a responsible gun owner requires some common sense — something that this dude didn’t have!”).

The expansive nature of the comments, the researchers say, reflects how death is addressed more broadly on Twitter than on Facebook.

“Facebook users frequently know each other offline, often post personal photos, and can choose who sees their profiles,” the authors noted.

By contrast, Twitter users can tweet at anybody, profiles are short and most accounts are public.

Given the 140-character tweet limit, users are more likely to post pithy thoughts than soul-baring sentiments.

“A Facebook memorial post about someone who died is more like sitting in that person’s house and talking with their family, sharing your grief in that inner circle,” Branstad said in a paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle on August 20.

“What we think is happening on Twitter is people who wouldn’t be in that house, who wouldn’t be in that inner circle, getting to comment and talk about that person. That space didn’t really exist before, at least not publicly,” the team noted.

Twitter use is still evolving, the researchers point out, making the site fertile ground for studying how social media is used for mourning in the future.



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