Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Living on social media after death
Posted: Sunday, August 16, 2015
Natalie Ciafrei visits her best friend’s Facebook profile page a few times a week to read posts left by others. Sometimes she leaves a message too or “tags” him in a post she thinks he’d like. Sometimes she’ll just scroll through old photos.
That her friend died in a car accident doesn’t matter to the 20-year-old Middletown woman. He lives on for her, even if online only.
“I go back and read our conversations from before he passed away. I still read back the messages I sent him. Even just to look at pictures,” she said. “Instantly, if I’m having a rough time, when I Iook at his page I get a sense of relief. I talk to him and connect with him through there.”
Less than a generation ago, social media was created as a way to connect the living, but experts in fields such as religion, sociology, psychology and communication believe it has evolved into a medium for sharing not only our everyday lives, but our afterlives.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and dozens more online networks have become the new obituary notice, tombstone, even the roadside memorial, where mourners have instant, real-time access to a dead loved-one’s life.
The phenomenon is transforming mourning from a typically private, somber, structured ritual into a casual, permanent public forum. That has raised questions about proper decorum and privacy, experts agree. There is growing debate over whether keeping the dead alive online helps, or hurts, the living left behind.
Among the earliest appearances of online mourning occurred after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when scores of websites were created to remember victims lost in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The sites provided an accessible forum for friends and family to read messages from strangers and those who knew their loved ones long before the creation of sites such as MySpace and Friendster.
Since then, social media has created a virtual cemetery with some estimates suggesting that at least 30 million of the more than 1 billion profiles on Facebook — the largest social media network — have outlived users. Most people maintain more than one social media account, and new services are promising to keep online identities intact after death. Take ”Dead Social”(http://www.deadsocial.org/), for example. It’s a free social media tool that will distribute ongoing prerecorded messages post-mortem.
Estate lawyers have started urging clients to include final directions on how their “digital assets” should be managed after death.
“You’re sharing your life, but one of the most important things that will happen is the one thing it’s impossible for you to share,” said Jed Brubaker, a leading scholar in the field of digital identity and an assistant professor in information sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“There is no ‘I’m dead’ button and when would you click it anyway?”
Little large-scale research exists showing the extent that social media has changed how people view death, but what is available suggests that social media has provided a new context for encountering and engaging in death and mourning, Brubaker said.
Grieving has always been a communal function. What social media has done is vastly expand the number of people participating in group mourning, Brubaker said. As a result, casual acquaintances, even long forgotten childhood friends, are often counted among mourners.
Mainstream religions have built-in grieving rituals such as a Mass and prayers for the dead and incorporating late loved ones in these rituals, said Candi Cann, a Baylor University religion professor whose research focuses on death and dying and memorializing the dead.
But digital culture is filling a huge vacuum for many who reject the traditional Western bereavement model that urges the bereaved to emotionally detach from the deceased. Online mediums promote the bereavement model Continuing Bonds Theory, which encourages the living to integrate the dead into their daily lives, Cann said.
“It’s healthy,” she added. “Mourners need to have a relationship with our dead and reintegrate them into our lives.”
For some people, the way to maintain departed loved ones in their lives is keeping grandma’s quilt on a bed or cooking mom’s recipes, Cann said. For others, it’s using the World Wide Web.
The extended support network is one aspect that mourners, particularly immediate family, report they like most about social media, Brubaker said. People enjoy hearing stories they didn’t know about a departed loved one and reading different perspectives of how someone impacted others’ lives, Brubaker said.
Jack Robinson Sr. died suddenly following a hunting accident in December 2013, but his Facebook page remains active. His children have no immediate plans to take it down, either.
“I thought, personally, after a year it somehow deletes itself,” Robinson’s daughter Kathi Ramirez said. “I meant to talk to my brother about taking it down, but every time I go on there, people are commenting. It’s scary sometimes. I’ve connected with so many people that have touched my father’s life. People I didn’t even know. It’s very strange.”
Robinson, a former Bensalem police captain, is buried in Bensalem, a three hour-drive from his daughter’s Susquehanna County home and a long plane ride for her brother, who lives in Norway. So their dad’s Facebook page is the easiest way to stay connected with him, Ramirez said.
Seeing the old photos and posts will sometimes reduce her to tears, but they also inevitably bring a smile to her face in a way a graveside visit can’t, she said.
“My dad was a very, very, very huge part of our lives. He was our best friend. He was the center of our world. We think of him every day. It’s kind of neat to look back.”
The proliferation of social media has also created what Brubaker calls the “six degrees of network effect” — which involves a person not directly connected to a death, but is a close friend, coworker or casual acquaintance of someone who is. Should such a person post condolences on the page of the person you know? What about the friend of your friend?
Other questions emerging about proper social media etiquette revolve around aspects such as funeral selfies, filming funeral services and the use of emoticons in condolence messages, experts said.
Then there are the people who are late to the funeral, so to speak, the ones who missed the original news feed announcing a death, Brubaker said. Birthday notifications are among a common trigger for learning about a previously announced death, which often leads to a sense of guilt.
“There is an expectation they will learn quickly about a death because of the vehicle and, even something two days later, can seem like learning about it so terribly late,” he said.
Natalie Ciafrei learned about her best friend’s death two years ago while scrolling through the news feed notifications on her Facebook profile.
“I was in tears. I didn’t know what to say, how to react to it,” she said. “It was one of those things I hadn’t talked to him in a few days and I had no idea what happened to him.”
In retrospect, though, Ciafrei said she doesn’t think the way she learned of his death had any impact on her reaction. She wonders if she would have found out about it at all without social media. Visiting his profile often brings a roller coaster of emotions, she added, but it’s worth it.
“I felt upset for a few minutes, and then I felt better because I still talked to him. It makes me feel like he’s always going to be there, even when he isn’t physically.”
Morrisville resident Holly Harman visits the Facebook profiles of her father, who died almost two years ago, and a close friend who died five years ago. While she also visits her father’s grave site on his birthday and Father’s Day, the Facebook profile has become a family gathering post.
“I just leave sentimental messages when I think of them because of a certain situation I’m in or something pops in my head,” said Harman, 58. “It’s just kind of venting in a way the frustration of not being able to tell them that in person.”
Harman believes social media helps but also prolongs grieving. Then again, she added, her grandmother died 25 years ago and she still grieves for her. After another close friend died, she found herself wishing he had a social media account she could visit.
“Now that he’s gone, you are totally cut off,” she said.
Such reactions make sense to Jean Dolan, an adjunct communications instructor at Bucks County Community College. Social media enhances interpersonal communications since people are often more comfortable sharing and expressing deep emotions from behind the safety of a computer screen.
“For some people it may be replacing the phone call or the stop by and visit,” she said. “But some people were never comfortable seeing people face to face after a tragedy. People can reveal themselves more deeply through social media. It’s a bit of a safer way for us to connect.”
Dolan is among the BCCC employees and alumni who regularly visit and post messages on the Facebook profile for former English professor and Bucks County Poet Laureate Allen Hoey. The Solebury resident died suddenly in 2010. She visits Hoey’s profile page on his birthday, as well as the day he died, and when she sees a story or article he might have enjoyed.
“It’s a way for those of us, other colleagues and friends ... to connect and still remember him,” she said.
In his research, Brubaker has found that it’s often the friends or distant family members who have the strongest emotional connections to the deceased’s leftover social media accounts.
“Often the case is the immediate family ... needs it the least. Close family members have memorializing practices that are private,” he said. For everyone else, the social media account gives them a space to engage in that. Increasingly we’re learning, we’ve gained literacy among death and social media that these spaces are memories.”
While many family members draw comfort in a deceased loved-one’s online presence, others consider it a frustrating roadblock — a pause button — in the grieving process.
One Wisconsin couple had to get a court order in 2012 to gain access to personal messages on their adult son’s Facebook account after he died by suicide.
Until earlier this year, Facebook took a largely hands-off policy toward removing deceased user’s profiles. Family members could petition to deactivate a dead user’s account. Also the profile could be converted into a “memorial page,” where visitors could share memories on the person’s timeline and interact with past posts. Only existing “friends” could access the page, and they couldn’t “tag” the person in a post or send a message.
Facebook changed its policy this year to allow users to either request an account be permanently deleted after death or assign third party as a “legacy contact” to take over of some aspects of an original profile.
Buckingham resident Robin Rosenthal hasn’t deactivated either Facebook accounts for her late husband or mother, though they have both been dead for about five years. The reason why isn’t sentimental.
“I don’t know how to close the Facebook accounts or my mom’s email,” she said. A lot of people like to have them up because they write things and they want people to remember their loved ones. I’m not in that group.”
She has her husband’s driver’s license and passport to remember him. She has her memories and other keepsakes from her mother. They are the reminders she cherishes, Rosenthal said. But since the Facebook accounts remain active, Rosenthal gets occasional notices about them in her Facebook news feed, which she calls a source of sadness.
“Facebook to me isn’t that important. It’s just another loose end I have to tie up,” she said. “For me it’s part of the journey. Life goes on. I just feel it’s something I have to take care of. What am I going to do let it float out there forever?”
The history of social media
Usernets and Bulletin Board Systems — the earliest forms of online communication — hit the Internet allowing users to exchange data over phone lines.
America Online launched AOL and email, which for many people was their introduction into the World Wide Web.
Classmates.com is launched. The social networking site allows users to find and connect with former acquaintances and classmates. Craig’s List starts as an email distribution list to friends of Craig Newmark featuring local events in the San Francisco Bay Area; in 1996 it became a Web-based service that expanded into other classified categories.
AOL’s Instant Messenger is born allowing for real time instant online communication
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, online memorials pop up in cyberspace including one for families ofCantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center http://www.cantorfamilies.com/
Friendster.com launched, as did Meetup, another online social networking site that helped organize offline group meetings in various locations worldwide. Meetup users enter their zip codes or city and the topic they want to meet about, and the website helps them arrange a place and time to meet.
MySpace.com launched, as did Linked-In and Photobucket. Google bought the blog-publishing service Blogger.com, which allows multi-user blogs with time-stamped entries.
Facebook is founded as a way for college students to connect. It opened to the general public in 2006 and overtakes MySpace as the most popular social networking site in 2008. Also launched were Digg and Flickr, World of Warcraft, a multiplayer online role-playing game, and Vimeo, a video-sharing website where users upload, share and view videos.
The video-sharing website YouTube is launched, as is the entertainment, social networking and news website Reddit, which allows registered users to submit content, including posts or direct links. In 2006, Conde Nast Publications acquires the site from the University of Virginia roommates who founded it.
Facebook created the “Like” button, and Foursquare, the local search and discovery mobile app, is launched.
Instagram is launched as a free smartphone mobile app; also launched was Storify, a social networking service that lets the user create stories or timelines using social media outlets. It opened to the public in 2011.
Pinterest, Google Plus and Snapchat are launched.
Vine, the short-form video sharing service, where users share six-second long looping video clips, is launched. User videos are published through Vine’s social network and can be shared on other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Periscope, the live video streaming app for IOS and Android devices, is launched.