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Death, grief, Facebook and the construction of memory

How bereaved family and friends memorialize the dead now includes both real-world and online tributes and gatherings (photo by ToastyKen via Flickr)

When someone dies, do you learn about it from a phone call in the night, an obituary in a local paper - or from logging onto Twitter or Facebook? 

And just what happens when grief meets social media?

In “Virtual Mourning and Memory Construction on Facebook: Here Are the Terms of Use,” researchers at the University of Toronto explore the online information practices of people grieving, commemorating, and mourning a loved one.

The study, by U of T’s Faculty of Information (iSchool) Librarian Kathleen Scheaffer and Professor Rhonda McEwen, also of University of Toronto Mississauga, was published recently in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. In it, McEwen and Scheaffer examine the implications of Facebook’s terms of use policies for the bereaved – and for the dead.

“This particular study of grief and mourning online is an example of the ways in which traditional structures such as use policies can have unintended consequences for how people communicate,” said McEwen, “and raises concerns for how those exchanges may contribute to a lasting impression of the deceased.”

McEwen and Scheaffer examined traditional methods of grieving such as print obituaries or radio announcements and compared them with Facebook features such as pages, messages, profiles. They analyzed documents, carried out one-on-one interviews, and conducted surveys with Facebook users who had a loved one die after 2008. (Since 2007, Facebook has had a “memorializing procedure” in place, leaving the dead person’s estate options in the hands of friend and relatives.)

When coping with the loss of another, Facebook is a familiar tool that gives instant access for users to share their emotions, and a large user base, researchers said, making it a natural place for mourners to gather virtually for group support via comment, “likes” and photos.

“Loved ones can continue an online relationship with the deceased for personal and collective expression,” the study found.

However, users could also inadvertently erode or negatively affect the memory of the dead person, altering an image he or she intentionally created.  Additionally, the research found that contributions of the bereaved on the profile of someone who died can, in some cases, foster an environment of competition among mourners (e.g., who loved her the most).

“The immediacy of being able to publish grieving and memorializing comments, messages, wall posts, photos, and so on has direct consequences for the deceased’s curation of self – the intentional online content creation and content editing to represent an intentional persona,” the paper says.

Through several examples, McEwen and Scheaffer show how the profile of a person who has died may no longer reflect his or her image, but rather the remembered life of the user’s Facebook friends.

“The individual’s memory archive becomes a social archive,” the study finds. “The online self-curation of the deceased is overridden.”

To avoid this practice, the researchers give three recommendations in their article:

  • Facebook should offer “digital estate options” to users at sign up, and allow current users this option now. Everyone should have the ability to amend their decision.
  • Shut off the ability to modify a deceased’s Facebook account and leave the work as it is. Facebook should delete everything after 50 years.
  • The Facebook profile of deceased members should be frozen, but remain accessible to Facebook friends with the same privacy filters enabled, but the direct message function disabled. The profile would not be searchable online. Instead, loved ones could create memorial pages, thereby owning the digital content and curation.

(Access the full study.)