Death and social media: how the internet has redefined mortality

death social media internet jo taylor flickr

I was scrolling through Instagram one day when a dog account I followed posted a picture of the dog next to a tombstone.

“RIP Dad,” the caption read. He was only 23.

Immediately I found myself searching for his page, for his girlfriend’s page, for any sign of life — and any warning of death to come. I wanted to know the ins and outs of their lives: how they met, when they got a dog, how in love they were, how his loved ones were coping. I wanted to know how he died.

I stared at his last post, wondering if he knew. If he could feel the impending tragedy, if he had said silent goodbyes.

I wanted to spot the signs so I could avoid them.

I got none of the answers I wanted, of course. In fact, I got nothing but a gut wrenching guilt at having imposed myself on someone else’s grief.

But then, I reminded myself, they had made everything public. If the girlfriend didn’t want me to know, she wouldn’t have posted it to the dog Instagram in the first place. She would have protected her personal account.

Social media has made it more difficult to avoid confronting death

Social media doesn’t just enable my grasping at existential straws — it also allows grievers a platform to maintain a loved one’s legacy. Before the internet, the average person was survived only in pictures and the written word — often not curated by themselves.

Now, along with personal accounts of their lives available for any to revisit, those passed can also bank on their loved ones posting periodic reminders of their existence on social media.

UCT graduate and friend Lauren Joffe says it’s difficult building friendships with people who never met her younger sister, and social media is a way to bridge that gap.

Her sister Vanya was diagnosed with cancer when she was six and eventually passed away aged ten in 2013. The day after Vanya’s passing, Joffe changed her profile picture to one of them together. It acts as a tribute, and she hasn’t changed it since.

Asked if she would ever change it, her answer is absolute.

“No. Never.”

Joffe posts about her sister regularly — sometimes when she pops into her thoughts, sometimes when she’s “genuinely distraught”. Wary to put the burden on friends who have acted as constant support, she posts to Facebook as a general call that alerts people she’s hurting.

“Sometimes she just pops into my thoughts [so I post], and sometimes I’m genuinely sad,” she says. This way anyone with the emotional capacity to help can do so, and friends who can’t can send a love react in support.

This is because social media doesn’t just protect the lost’s legacies — it also comforts the living.

Joffe’s grief allows her an insight into the lives of others in mourning, and she checks passed friends’ Facebooks regularly to see whom she can help.

“If I check out a friend’s wall and see other people are posting on it, [it shows] that person is still thought about.”

And when she sees that someone is hurting, she can let them know that she hasn’t forgotten either.

Before the internet, the average person was survived only in pictures and the written word not curated by themselves

But while Joffe uses her grief to help others, there are many who use social media to take a step back from those in mourning.

According to a study by CPJ Field, 22% of people send their condolences via social media — and that number rises to 31% for those aged between 20 and 39.

The same study also found that the idea of being memorialised by a virtual space was on the rise, with 6% of people preferring it overall but 9% of 16 to 19 year olds interested in the option.

In a way, social media has made it more difficult to avoid confronting death. Whether it’s Facebook’s “On This Day” feature, the widened sphere of acquaintances, the grieving mother using her son’s page to like posts — reminders of death unrelentingly push their way into our feeds.

One second you could be cooing at cute dogs, and the next you’re staring at a graveyard forced to acknowledge your own — and everyone you love’s — mortality.

Social media has changed the way we live our lives. But as life as we know it morphed, so too did death.

The way we grieve, the way we console, the way we understand our days are numbered: they’re all being shaped by the likes of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. We’re just all along for the ride.

Feature image: Jo Naylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0, resized)



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