Washington : Social media is redefining how people grieve, with Twitter in particular widening the conversation around death and mourning which were earlier considered to be private matters, a new study has found.
Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) analysed feeds of deceased Twitter users and found that people use the site to acknowledge death in a blend of public and private behaviour that differs from how it is addressed on other social media sites.
Death and mourning were considered private matters in the 20th century, with the public remembrances common in previous eras replaced by intimate gatherings behind closed doors in funeral parlours and family homes.
But with an ephemeral mix of rapid-fire broadcast and personal expression, social media is redefining how people grieve, researchers said.
Posts about death on Facebook tend to be more personal and involve people who knew the deceased, they said.
On the other hand, 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.
“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 UW doctoral student Nina Cesare.
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 most common known causes of death among people in the sample were suicides, automobile accidents, and shootings.
Researchers pored over the 39 feeds to see how users tweeted about the deceased, and concluded that Twitter was used “to discuss, debate, and even canonise or condemn” them.
Some users maintained bonds with the dead person by sharing memories and life updates (“I miss cheering you on the field”), some posted intimate messages, while others commented on the nature of the death.
Some users made judgemental comments about the deceased, while others expressed thoughts on life and mortality.
The expansive nature of the comments reflects how death is addressed more broadly on Twitter than on Facebook, researchers said.
Facebook users frequently know each other offline, often post personal photos, and can choose who sees their profiles.
By contrast, Twitter users can tweet at anybody, profiles are short, and most accounts are public, researchers said.
Those characteristics create a less personal atmosphere that emboldens users to engage when someone has died, even if they did not know the person.