Twitter Changing the Way We Mourn Dead

     (CN) — Social media’s impact on modern communication is pronounced and far-reaching — even altering how people mourn the deaths of people they know.
     Sociologists from the University of Washington analyzed the feeds of deceased Twitter users and noticed that people use the site to mourn people who have died in a mixture of public and private behavior that is unique from other social media sites.
     In their paper, presented at the 111th annual meeting of the American Sociological Assocation held this past weekend, researchers Nina Cesare and Jennifer Branstad distinguished Twitter from Facebook since the public nature of the character-limiting site lends itself to personal and general comments about a deceased person, regardless of how well the grieving party knew them.
     “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,” Cesare said.
     The researchers combed through — a website that links social media pages of dead people to their online obituaries — to find deceased Twitter users. The team then analyzed nearly 21,000 obituaries and identified 39 dead people with Twitter accounts; the vast majority of entries were from Facebook or MySpace profiles.
     After analyzing the 39 Twitter feeds, Cesare and Branstad found that the site was used “to discuss, debate and even canonize or condemn” the deceased.
     Some users shared memories and life updates to the dead person’s account, while others posted intimate messages or references to the nature of how the individual died.
     Other users offered judgmental comments about the deceased, including this gem: “Being a responsible gun owner requires some common sense — something that this dude didn’t have!”
     The researchers attributed the differences between mourning on Twitter and Facebook to the nature of the sites themselves, as Twitter users can tweet at anybody and most accounts are public. And since tweets are limited to 140 characters, sharing thoughts is simple and quick.
     “What we think is happening on Twitter is people who wouldn’t be in that house, who wouldn’t be in that inner circle, are getting to comment and talk about that person,” Branstad said. “That space didn’t really exist before, at least not publicly.”
     Facebook, on the other hand, is generally geared toward private or personal expressions of mourning from friends and relatives of the deceased.
     “A Facebook memorial post about someone who died is more like sitting at that person’s house and talking with their family, sharing your friend in that inner circle,” Branstad said.
     Mourning traditions vary by society and time periods, and increased secularization and medical advances in the 20th century made death somewhat of a taboo subject for public conversation, the authors said.
     Social media has brought death back into the public realm and broadened who is able to engage with a deceased person’s account — for better or for worse.
     “New norms will have to be established for what is and isn’t appropriate to share within this space,” Cesare said. “But I think the ability of Twitter to open the mourning community outside of the intimate sphere is a big contribution, and creating this space where people can come together and talk about death is something new.”

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