I want to write about a topic that is quite sensitive, and I do so with total respect for all people involved. I am writing to explore how we are engaging with social media in discussing sensitive topics, and in this case: death.
Recently a friend and colleague passed away after a long battle with cancer. For the purposes of this story, I will call him “Henry”. To be clear, he wasn’t just my friend – Henry was a friend to a great number of people. His work and life touched literally hundreds of people, many of whom are not even aware of it.
I found out about Henry’s death through a Facebook post. Specifically, someone had posted “RIP Henry” within hours of his death. This was not the way that I would have liked to find out. I was first struck by the way people responded to that post by clicking ‘LIKE’. I then had to go on a hunt through Facebook to find more information. It seemed as though people had been tweeting, emailing and facebooking throughout the day about his death, and many of whom had not even met him.
I have been grappling since around whether to write about this, how I might write about it, and indeed when is the right time. Henry’s life was completely dedicated to issues of social change, justice and ethics. My most recent conversations with him over the last couple of months of his life were about ethics, and in many senses our work together over the past three years ignited the passion in me that led to the creation of this blog. I am sure that he would not have wanted me to shy away from this.
Henry was also not shy in talking about sensitive matters, and in the latter years of his life he became a passionate advocate for exploring the cultural and ethical dimensions of health, palliative care, and death and dying. Henry was a supporter of organisations like The Groundswell Project to foster greater community dialogue around death and dying, and how social innovation could inform a better community understanding and practice around this life stage.
That aside, talking about death is a sensitive topic for many people. I spoke with a trusted colleague in the palliative care space who decided to wait a year after the death of a friend before publicly blogging about her life. When is the right time?
The fact that I mention Facebook also means that my friends and colleagues are connected to this story. I need to say that the people who facebooked, tweeted and emailed on the day of his death are truly beautiful and kind people. I imagine their intentions were to celebrate a great life, and not to create pain or dis-ease.
Facebook is an interesting phenomenon though, and one that I think we are yet to fully appreciate in terms of how it is changing behaviour and culture. As it is a platform that involves friends, in implies a level of intimacy. People share important life events, photos, how they are feeling and more. It is a tool that allows you to enter others lives, and invite people to enter yours. There is also an instantaneous dimension to Facebook. We can post so quickly, and get feedback quickly.
Is Facebook an appropriate place to announce significant life passages such as births or deaths? Back in the old media days (pre-2012), the responsibility of notifying about a death fell usually to the family, with death notices appearing in a newspaper. Until this time, there was a sensitivity to announcing or talking publicly about it. In telling people, family and friends would call each other to let them know the news.
One friend shared the story of a grandfather she knew that found out through Facebook about his first grand-daughter’s birth. He was devastated that he was not given this important and special news personally. It seems as if the speed and ease of Facebook is making people act unconsciously, or perhaps causing us not to be discerning about what is appropriate to be published through social media and what is not.
I have talked with friends about this and my reaction. I had wondered whether I was being over-sensitive (something that I do well). I asked whether they perceive it the same way, and what they thought motivated the need to post about this so soon. One friend suggested to me that it is easy to get carried away with this, and want to be the first person to share a post or piece of information. Another said that it is easy to just treat all information or posts with the same level of significance. Another wondered that despite the high level of connection it fosters, whether it allows for any genuine empathy – how often do we consider how a post may be received by others?
In the Facebook world, a post can receive one of two responses – ‘like’ or a comment. The ‘liking’ of a post does not mean that one necessarily ‘likes’ the content. I can also mean that they agree with it, or that it resonates with them. That said, when such vastly different interpretations of the same word can be held, this may be problematic for sensitive topics. I think that this is where empathy may help in imagining how a post may be received.
My intent with this post has not been to determine what is right or wrong in this – I quite frankly do not know. This is also not about passing judgement – I am sure that at other times I have posted or written stuff carelessly and caused offense. My intent and hope is for us to live in a world where we can be more conscious of our actions, myself included. Just because technology enables us to do something, it doesn’t mean that we should do something. Perhaps one of the great opportunities for humanity that arises out of social media, is the opportunity to live more consciously in the world, especially around what we say and how we say it.
If you are interested in exploring the ethics of social media or have views on this post, please feel free to leave a comment or be in touch.
Other reading around the same topic: “The problem of digital death and the future of dying (online)” and “Keying in grief: Social media changes the way we mourn”
The Groundswell Project is an Australian organisation working to understand and raise community awareness around issues related to death and dying.