I friend dead people – Are social media mature enough to cope with bereavement?

Estimated reading time 4–7 minutes

This is a very personal post about topics in which I am not an expert, so I welcome comments and suggestions.

When “like” and “lol” don’t help

In February, a young man I had never met died in sad circumstances. He was a friend of a friend and I was supposed to meet him on the day he died. Completely coincidentally, within a fortnight I myself lost a dear friend, someone I had known for over 20 years.

The closeness in timing has thrown out sharp contrasts in the way that these deaths have reverberated around my social media worlds (obviously the real world impacts have been huge, but I am not going to discuss those here).

In many ways, dealing with the death of my own friend on social media has been easier. Being well known to her family and her circle of closest friends has meant that I have felt able to post messages of condolence and remembrance as I instinctively know what is appropriate, and I know that most of the people reading them will know me. It has been strange to see her name pop up as a “friend available on chat” when I know any activity in her account must be one of her family members logging in to maintain the page. Yesterday was her birthday, and the reminders in my calendar and the little birthday gift “event reminder” were bittersweet, but not unwelcome. I think of her and her family often, and do not want to forget.

Just after she died, I received a message through a social media site from someone I had never met or even heard of, who had been a schoolfriend of hers long ago, asking what had happened to our mutual friend, and I felt comfortable in answering. It helped me to talk about her with this stranger. I even flattered myself that I was doing some good, in that they clearly felt awkward about contacting her family directly while I was able to act as an “information resource” meaning the family and closest friends could focus on their own grieving.

I friend dead people

In contrast, how to cope with the loss of an almost-friend on social media has been strange and unnerving. One social media application has tactlessly and repeatedly suggested him as a friend, noting how many friends we had (have?) in common. Somehow I didn’t have the heart to click on “ignore”. I realise now I should have done just that, because I was anguished when I accidentally clicked on “confirm”. I worried that his friends and relatives might see my “friend request” and be distressed by it. Maybe they would never spot the noitification, maybe they would assume it was sent at a time before his death – just another reminder of what might have been, maybe they would even be comforted by the continuation of these distant social interactions with almost-strangers. (I immediately emailed the site in question asking them to retrieve my suggestion, but received no reply.)

My uncertainty about the appropriate “social media etiquette” was no doubt increased rather than diminished by our social distance. I do not know his family and friends well enough to mention this casually in passing, to express that this had been a mistake and was not intended to distress, or even to know what sort of people they are and whether this is the sort of thing that might upset them. However, it is exactly these sort of loose “one degree of separation” relationships that online social media foster and this incident struck me as illustrating how inadequate such media are when interactions need to go beyond chirruping about the weather, saying a website is cool, or asking whether or not someone wants to go to a party.

Digital memorials

My friend’s social media pages have slipped into being a form of digital memorial, but this also raises new issues. There have been stories in the press of “trolls” deliberately desecrating memorial pages in an online equivalent of upturning flowers left on a grave or kicking over and spraying graffiti on a headstone (e.g. http://gawker.com/5868503/why-people-troll-dead-kids-on-facebook). The only way to deal with this seems to be to remove the page, which is a shame and in a way seems to mean the bullies have won. It also highlights a strange transition from personal to public. Our graveyards are either public spaces that the authorities monitor and maintain or privately curated grounds. I have previously thought of my social media pages as more like a private garden – people may peer over the wall, but it is essentially “my” space to maintain. People are starting to think more and more about their digital legacies (the British Computer Society recently held an event on this theme).

There are already “digital memorial” companies offering guarantees of “permanent” archiving and access to sites (e.g. Much Loved). Other sites offer memorial pages that allow people to make donations to charity, but presumably these are not expected to remain in place forever.

However, these sites are aimed at those who remain setting up the sites, not taking over the sites that belonged to their loved ones. The value of someone’s posts and pages changes dramatically when they become precious memories, and not just ephemeral chatter. If we (or our loved ones) want our own sites to go on after us, do we need to bequeath our passwords to trusted friends or family? How does that affect our contracts with hosts and service providers? What rights do families have to “reclaim” the pages and content if there is no such bequest? How would disputes over inheritance of such sites be decided? What recourse do we have if the site owner decides to shut down and delete the content or simply loses it?

It seems to me that such issues have the potential to cause far more distress than the strangenesses we encounter when automated reminders and friend suggestions behave as if we are all immortal.