By one estimate, nearly a million Facebook users will die this year. Statisticians have calculated that in less than a hundred years, the site will have more dead users than living ones; the BBC has called the site “an unstoppable digital graveyard.”
Most research on death and social media, accordingly, has tended to focus on Facebook (and, years ago, Myspace). “The prior research really shows that people clearly mourn on these social media sites, but it stays very personal and intimate,” says Jennifer Branstad, a sociology researcher at the University of Washington. Twitter, by contrast, has gone relatively unexamined — but in new research presented Sunday at the American Sociological Association annual meeting, Branstad and her colleague Nina Cesare argued that the site is changing the way we grieve online, creating a more open, more public place for digital mourning.
Combing through thousands of obituaries on MyDeathSpace.com, which connects people’s obituaries to their social-media accounts, the two ended up with just 37 that included Twitter profiles. For each one, they analyzed the tweets that other users were directing at the deceased person’s handle, sorting them into three categories. The first looked a lot like Facebook: “Intimate communication between the deceased and the survivors,” mostly friends and family, Cesare says. The second was for people who were famous before they died and who “were kind of treated as symbols,” she says. “There was less emotional valence, more prosaic funerary language, often an acknowledgement of their work.”
But the third category was the one they found most compelling: ordinary people who, “for whatever reason, the circumstances of their death sparked public interest,” Cesare says. “They’re not well-known prior to their death, but something about their case invited people into this space to talk about them.”
Most of the time, Branstad says, that conversation turned from the deceased themselves and towards broader social issues, like gun control or suicide prevention. Other times, it was just a space to acknowledge tragedy: “One of the themes we often saw,” she says, “was this idea of youth lost — ‘It’s really sad and tragic that someone would die so young,’ this broader issue of memorializing young people.”
It’s a stark contrast to Facebook, where people tend to interact with the profiles of the dead only if they knew them in life. With Facebook, “there’s this concept of continuing bonds — the idea that survivors maintain the relationship” with the deceased, Cesare explains. “Your online identity is very closely tied to your offline identity, and your online and offline networks mostly parallel one another. Your network is bounded; it’s a much more intimate, personal place.”
“But Twitter is structured differently,” she says. “Twitter is kind of a fluid social space, so people are able to find out about these cases. And not just passively consume them — they’re able to tweet about them, and tweet at the user, even if they didn’t know them in real life, because of these sorts of permeable boundaries that exist.”