UK city dwellers and readers of The Metro may have seen the front page story this morning:
“Father learned of son’s death from post on school’s website”
Headlines on the front page are reserved for news that shocks, or inspires controversy. The prevalence of this article this morning just illustrates what I suspected already, that death is still a very pertinent issue in the on-line world.
It is rare that much will shock us these days, we are over-exposed to everything in a constant stream of scandals, sex and violence but the death of someone close to us is almost certainly the news that will continue to strike us right to the heart. The article above reported that the father of the boy received the news he was dead via the internet on the way to the hospital to see him, through the school’s website and through Facebook, which already had a stream of tributes when he heard.
I have recently lost a friend, and know people who have experienced first hand what a terrible, crippling shock it is, and what an inappropriate way social media is to receive such news. It detaches you from the event, they told me. You feel separate from it, not a part of what’s going on, and the shock and disbelief are hard to shake off. They needed to talk to people to confirm it was real, and even then the initial disbelief lingered. Social media has become the broadcast channel for our lives, but most of the time it is just filled with banal trivia or gossip. That is what social media reduces death to, just another piece of gossip that hundreds of people at a time can feed off and spread around. Social media, it seems can resemble a community to us in many ways but in death, it distances and we can’t connect with what we are reading.
From the tone of the article, I sense the father felt outraged by the revelation of such important, life-changing news in this way. The article went on to reveal he was suing the school. The lengths he is going to may seem a bit extreme, and money redundant in what has happened, after-all the school did not cause his death. The shock however is terrible, potentially crippling and the school overstepped a huge invasion of privacy to report on something so personal and intimate in this way.
So what should be done? Should death be a topic that is left out of social media altogether? Death can be addressed in a different way however, written tributes can be a source of comfort, through the way they create community around the tragedy in a form of group mourning. People who cannot be in the country for example, can join in and people can share memories and stories. Life can be celebrated. Death has become a part of social media, with dozens of sites dedicated purely to this cause. (See http://legacymultimedia.com/2012/03/05/our-top-six-online-memorial-websites/ for just a few!) People view the internet as a way of immortalising their friends and loved ones, in a way that a slab of granite cannot.
The issue here then really is the sensitivity surrounding the early stages. For my friend, another friend of ours sent out a group message asking people’s discretion and to leave posting tributes until at least her family had been reached. The news still leaked out however, and some people did unfortunately suffer the same terrible shock of the boy in the article’s father. The internet, and social media in particular, is known for spreading news impossibly quickly, and is beyond our control. Should it therefore be left to organisations like Facebook and Twitter to regulate it? Perhaps an alert system whereby posts to someone’s wall can be blocked, a profile temporarily frozen? In future should there be a “deceased” option under a member’s status..? Both these suggestions are unrealistic, for a start they are subject to easy abuse. You can easily imagine friends reporting each other dead ‘for a laugh’ and the hurt and confusion this would cause. Maybe a profile buddy up where you have a nominated person to look after your account when you die..?! See my earlier article on “joint accounts”!
I think we are going to have to naturally adopt a system among ourselves where discretion can be exercised. We are not so far removed from each other tat we cannot demonstrate love, respect, sensitivity or benevolence. ‘Unwritten rules’ exists in our social society, and I think this is a case where such a rule, or boundary, needs to be found. Friends know for example not to go after their friends recent ex’s… at least most of them do. We know capitals on-line are not decorous, and CAN BE TAKEN FOR SHOUTING.
Perhaps we just have to learn to hold back and keep sensitive, personal news for one-to-one conversations only, and tributes until after the funeral. Social media is just that, ‘social’, but is not a replacement for the real conversations we need to have in life and it is certainly no substitute for comforting words or a hug of condolence.