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Social Media Obituaries

A facebook post about an occasion that happened some time ago triggered my interest in taking up this topic for study. In the said post, the lady was lamenting about how she learnt of her brother’s death. The story was that the brother was a worker with a multinational company. During the cause of duty in Asia, there was a fatal accident and the brother was one of the victims. Immediately after the accident, R.I.P messages started appearing on the brother’s wall; incidentally, the lady was checking out her brother’s profile, and she was shocked by what she was seeing. The company had not even finalized the process of informing the family since it was only thirty minutes from the accident. Her weighty question was, ‘Has facebook introduced dying in real time’. During my use of social media, I have always found status updates from friends on facebook that are either announcing the passing on of the friends’ parents, children, siblings, friends or relatives. I almost always wonder the motivation behind sharing such personal information was. The question that always lingers on the mind is what will one feel when they learn of the demise of their loved ones through facebook or twitter? Are social networks making us so inhuman as not to consider the feelings of others? Are we in a race to establish who breaks news of an event without considering the humane and ethics side of our actions?

For the research, I choose to look for respondents who had either reported a death on social media or one who had learnt of the demise of a loved one from the media. I requested my friends to try to remember if anybody in their connections had ever posted anything close to that. From my friends, I got a list of eleven possible candidates. I then visited these candidates’ profiles to try and pull up these updates and found that three of them had already deleted the posts or ‘unfollowed’ them. The first consideration I made was the time elapsed since the post was made. This was necessary since I did not want my interviewees to be people who were recently bereaved on such a sensitive subject. Next I narrowed down by geographical location since I preferred to do a face to face interview. At the end, I settled on two candidates, one a college student and the other a married man who only gave his age as ‘in the mid thirties’ For the purposes of this write up, I will only use alliances of Joe and Mary for the man and the college lady respectively.

Both candidates had been using facebook for upwards of four years and as thus were well versed in uses and limitations. The college student was on a camping trip when one of her friends drowned. Immediately most of her friends went online to announce the incident with some mentioning the name of the victim in their posts or through the auto name link function of facebook. Mary insisted that she was not among the first to post this but on reflection she felt that the only reason might have been because she had been too much shocked and had to be taken to the hospital. Asked how it would have been had she been the relative and learnt of the occasion on facebook, she said she would be extremely troubled and actually termed it ‘disgusting’. Joe lost his young son after a short illness. Being a Muslim, the young boy’s body had to be interred the same day. His wife was in shock and all planning was left to Joe. With family to be notified and logistics to be handled, it was all too much for him. Then an idea hit him, why not just it on facebook? He did exactly that, and he says he has no regrets. The post acts as his condolence book and most of his friends and family even those who live in faraway places were able to condole with him. Ilana Gershon uses the term Idioms of practice to describe the situation where people decide communally how to use various media and their appropriateness in certain situations. (2010, p.6). This implies that a majority of the users of social sites subscribe to certain ways of thinking about and understanding of the use of facebook.

It can thus be said most users were in agreement that: first, posting about others catastrophes without a pause to think of the repercussions was insensitive. Second, that as a means of conveying grave information it was not the right channel and that thirdly, the facebook wall is a fitting condolence book. From the last observation, there arose the argument that in no way can it replace the personal touch and image of concern that is portrayed by the traditional handwritten condolence or card.

Works CitedTop of Form

Andrews, Lori B. I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy. New York: Free Press, 2012. Print.

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Bradburn, Norman M, Seymour Sudman, and Edward Blair. Improving Interview Method and Questionnaire Design. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979. Print.

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Carroll, Evan, and John Romano. Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2011. Print.

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Gershon, Ilana. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2010. Print.

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Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.

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Appendix 1: Questionnaire

Name

Age

Marital Status

Career

Are you on facebook?

If yes, how regularly do you use it?

How many facebook friends do you have?

Sorry for your loss, after how long did you post anything to do with it on Facebook?

Do you feel that posting about the event helped in any way?

Do you feel that people posting about the loss of others on facebook infringes in private affairs that should be left to those closely concerned to deal with?

How different would your reaction have been for you if you had learnt of the loss on facebook?

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