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Death and the Online Space

May 22, 2012



Shane Richmond wrote a terrific post this morning for the Telegraph which looks at online grief. It’s prompted me to bring forward a blog post that’s been pinging around in my mind for a while, around the whole etiquette of death and online spaces.


Whenever I go to clean up my Twitter account (an urge that takes me less frequently than it should) up comes the name Trey Pennington. For those who don’t know the name, Trey was a passionate business advocate and a keen user of social media. I met him once, at a Likeminds conference, but often batted questions backwards and forwards online with him – he had the ability to debate things sensibly and my life is poorer for his passing. I cannot bring myself to ‘unfollow’ his Twitter account. Neither, it would seem, can over 100 thousand others.


I’m less ambivalent about removing Guy Kewney, a tech journalist now, sadly, no longer with us, from my Facebook account. I won’t.  His family sometimes post to his account and friend often post on big days like his birthday. It would feel wrong to ‘unfriend’. They appear to have have embraced this as a way of keeping a little piece of him close.


I’m always somewhat alarmed, however, by the persistent birthday reminders from tools like Plaxo etc at the thought that others might routinely do as Plaxo suggests and send a card, potentially causing alarm for family. In Guy’s case, his family seem like a very well balanced bunch, and I can imagine Guy having a chuckle at some poor embarrassed PR person’s expense, but I do believe there’s an issue of responsibility to be addressed.


Should these social networks be a little more careful and caring in their approach? Whilst families, for example, should be able to reach out and ask for contact details to be removed, networks like LinkedIn and Plaxo make money from maintaining contact data. Direct marketing databases, for example, should be running searches on ‘deaths’ and ‘gone aways’ on a regular basis. Should the networks not be offering the same kind of courtesy?


This is the more prosaic and practical end of the spectrum. At the other lies a cultural gap.


Many of the older generation have little online presence. It moves so fast and with such volumes that many choose to just stay away or maintain a small private corner. Yet the grief that Richmond describes is something that many will be forced to deal with at a particularly sensitive time – in the middle of dealing with their own, very personal, grief.

From the teenagers’ howl in unison at the loss of a friend intruding on the parents’ grief at the loss of a youngster, to the obituary in the newspaper that is no longer tomorrow’s chip wrapper but a permanent reminder of a lost one, the bereaved are losing ownership of their image of their loved ones.


I was caught up in a furore last week having helped create an online memorial to lovely older lady.  One person blew into a rage beyond all proportion. There was no way of predicting this, and there were almost certainly other forces/situations of which I was unaware at play. But everyone had a right to express themselves and it created an unnecessary dilemma. Personally, I could have been smarter about forewarning people, but the bigger issue remains: we are entering a  time when new rules, new etiquettes need establishing if we are to respect the pain of others.


Richmond is right when he notes that intruding on on-line grief is disrespectful, “even if it isn’t anywhere near as disrespectful as shouting at a passing hearse”. The trouble comes when those around the passing hearse find online grief of others intrusive and unbearable.


At the two ends of the ‘digitally connected’ spectrum are those who spend their entire lives online, and those who violently oppose and resent its existence. Everyone’s use of social spaces is, like their grief, unique. How we balance this, how we deal with the magnification of emotions on line and at time of grief, is something I suspect we will be grappling with for some time to come.


Whilst the lawyers are coming up with new metrics for who owns what ‘digital assets’ online, ownership of grief is going to present challenges for a long time to come.


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