Brown University recently faced a tragic loss of a student. In the wake of this tragedy, many students turned to Facebook to express themselves and offer support to others. Given my recent work and the conclusions I have made thus far on Facebook mourning and death, I was immediately critical of this use of social media during a time of grief. A friend, however, challenged me on some of my critique, forcing me to consider more openly the positive space that Facebook can offer at such a time. The friend used the word “community,” noting that while it was perhaps not the form of community I was most accustom to or comfortable with, it was a community nonetheless, bringing individuals together and reminding them of their place within a greater population at a difficult, and often isolating, time.
For many, Facebook groups or pages made in support of a loss often work in a similar, positive way. It is easy to see “R.I.P.” pages as becoming a social media trope and therefore condemn them in their performativity and predictability, but the role they play in the grieving process is, in fact, quite unique, and, in turn, not so easily condemned. For many, these digital spaces mirror those of physical, earthly memorials, while also allowing for a sense of community and support. Furthermore, according to a 2013 study, it seems that “Facebook memorial pages aid in the bereavement of the deceased, and allow a continuing space to engage with the deceased in a mediated, virtual and spiritual space. If the dead are virtually memorialized, they never really die. The more in-depth the memorial and the greater its permanence, the more the deceased remain with the living” (Kern, Forman, and Gil-Egui, 2013).
It is in this idea of immortalizing the dead and the mourning of the dead, however, that I find discomfort. In the moment, these shared digital memorial spaces may appear wholeheartedly positive and supportive. The human ability to forget, however, is crucial to moving past a trauma, and I question the long-term effects of preserved Facebook pages for the dead. Furthermore, unlike how the deceased have been previously memorialized by society, Facebook pages prove much more vulnerable spaces.
While R.I.P. pages and groups on Facebook may encourage those mourning to express their grief in a somewhat (at the time) positive way, they also open up the grieving process to “trolling.” Like with many practices that convert to the digital sphere, memorializing via Facebook often results in the inclusion of more people into the practice, not all of whom are welcome, or even known. Facebook groups and pages allow for strangers to contribute to the memorial in ways they wouldn’t otherwise; “frequently strangers take the liberty to voice insensitive or kind comments in the page of a deceased subject, in ways they would probably not do directly to their relatives in a real burial” (Kern, Forman, and Gil-Egui, 2013). It cannot be ignored that, at times, strangers happen upon a memorial page on Facebook and choose to offer positive support to those mourning, but, of course, this is not the norm. Strangers may occasionally post comments in groups/pages such as “she seemed a sweet girl; I’m praying for her family,” but more often the comments take on a negative form, such as, “thank goodness for dead sluts” (Kern, Forman, and Gil-Egui, 2013).
The 2013 study reports, “similar to tombs in the offline world, memorial pages for the dead in Facebook provide a place to ‘visit’ with dead loved ones, but unlike the former, these online places of remembrance provide platform where individual conversations with the dead are permanently recorded and publicly displayed” (Kern, Forman, and Gil-Egui, 2013). Even if “trolling” is monitored, reported, and/or efficiently removed from a Facebook page, its occurrence has been recorded by the platform. Moreover, the platform (Facebook) has “notified” family and friends of the trolling in a responsive, algorithmic way, devoid of understanding or sympathy.
Facebook’s conventions as a platform not only affect how trolling is recorded and disseminated, but also affect the reward system in place for actual mourners by commodifying displays of grief. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the ability to “like,” “share,” and “comment” on displays of grief published via Facebook lends new, adulterated incentives to performing grief online. The space of a memorial “page” or “group,” in particular, might exacerbate social media pressures to perform and display grief and can, in turn, lead to what has been called a “competition among mourners” (McEwen and Schaeffer, 2013).
(image via author)
In how displays of grief manifest on Facebook, it is interesting to note that, while strangers often contribute to these memorials in the third person, those grieving mostly contribute in the second person, as a form of dialogue with the deceased (Kern, Forman, and Gil-Egui, 2013). “In the poster’s mind, Facebook is a place to commune with the dead in a space where the communication may actually be ‘received.’ The dead live in the virtual cloud, and can hear or read the messages from the living” (Kern, Forman, and Gil-Egui, 2013). Here, too, perhaps Facebook memorial pages and group play some positive, cathartic role. Unlike the parallel of speaking to the dead at their tombstone (or in a religious space, etc.), however, speaking to them through their digital memorial publicly shares and records the moment of personal grief, and I question the long-term effects of such practices.
Overall, it is important to note why so many people turn to Facebook to memorialize. “R.I.P groups/pages” can serve as a digital memorial space through which mourners gather, share, and support. At the same time, the digital space is incredibly vulnerable to intruders, or trolls, and records moments of grief that might be better off forgotten, or at least only remembered in one’s own mind. As with all processes and spaces that become digitally translated, we must consider the positive and negative repercussions of utilizing the digital sphere. More than anything else, the newness of Facebook memorial pages prohibits us from truly knowing their long-term effects. Only time will tell how this cultural practice will be archived, both digitally and emotionally.
Kern, Rebecca, Abbe E. Forman, and Gisela Gil-Egui. "R.I.P.: Remain in perpetuity. Facebook memorial pages." Telematics and Informatics 30 (2013): 2-10.