Typically narcissistic blogging.

Death and Social Media II: Addendum

Today I published a very controversial post about how we handle unexpected tragedy on social media. I used a specific, relatively recent example, and I used it as a way to show that we need to seriously think about how to include social media in how we discuss death and suicide in high-risk communities.

I’d like to make clear that I did not write and publish this post lightly. I asked other people—people with level heads and strong emotions and lots of experience with death—to read it and give me feedback. I asked when I should post it. I asked for advice. What you see is a post I published after two months of editing and thought.

The responses I got were almost entirely polarized. Some were public, some were private, but almost all were on opposite ends of the spectrum.

According to some, I was entirely without empathy, and I should absolutely not be using this tragic event as a teaching moment.

According to others, I was a beacon of reason and good thinking, and I was thanked profusely for what I wrote.

I think that the truth must be somewhere in the middle.

I do not think I was wrong to write and publish the post; I truly believe that we need to seriously consider how we handle death on social media. As to whether I should have used that particular example…I don’t know. That particular tragedy and how it was handled—and how people reacted to it—was powerful and it is the reason I wrote this post in the first place.

The post was never intended to hurt anybody, but effect always trumps intent, so I own that.

I will not take the post down. I have done a quick edit to try to vague it up as much as I could in this moment, tried to make it more general. I am open to suggestions about how to generalize it further without losing the power and the context of it—because while I am deeply sympathetic to those experiencing their loss and grief, I am also attempting to tell a story from the perspective of people who were anticipating grief and heartbreak with no information as to whether that grief and heartbreak was theirs, this time.

I have been informed, by the way, by the two different poles of this argument, that our feelings did matter and that our feelings, in fact, didn’t. I think that this also falls somewhere in the middle.

So, I would love some input on how to make this a viable, healthy conversation. I’d love to see more blog posts about how social media has changed the landscape of mourning, emotion, loss, and pain. It’s a difficult conversation, and as long as we continue to connect through social media, it’s a necessary one.

When I set out to become a blogger, I thought my blog would be a place for pure humor, Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and pictures of my cat. Increasingly I have posted about those things that are difficult to talk about. Things that we don’t want to address. Things we like to pretend don’t exist until they happen to us. But I want to do it in ways that create discussion, not kill it. I want people to be interested, but not hurt. 

So I humbly request feedback, suggestions, and criticism. I hope to constantly improve my writing, my perspective, this blog, so that it truly is a place where such conversations can happen.

12 responses

  1. #1. Always use multiple, contrasting examples. Do not focus solely on the most recent example, for a multitude of reasons, some clearly demonstrated. 😉

    February 25, 2014 at 7:46 pm

  2. RJ Johnson

    “It’s a really twisty mess,” is my first publishable comment. And that’s not being a smartaas. We live in a dominant culture where death is not something most people talk about until we are forced to. Everyone has individual privacy boundaries as regards their lives and their emotions that range from “Open headline on a Monstervision Billboard; read all about it!” to “If I let you know my real name, I’ll have to kill you.” And then we have this urge that social media seems to encourage to “spread the news fastest… whether it’s accurate or not.”

    For myself I’m looking at demystifying and dismantling the taboos about discussing end of life issues. I can’t address other people’s privacy preferences and social-media-as-digital mob-psychology seems fascinating as hell, I don’t have the tools or training to approach it; so I’ll do my part to encourage people to talk about death, because eventually I won’t have that opportunity to do so because, you know, death.

    February 25, 2014 at 7:55 pm

  3. JustJen

    Aw, Whiskeypants, (( hugs )). I understood your post and agree.

    February 25, 2014 at 7:56 pm

  4. I have received, over the years, varying degrees of good-natured shit over my liberal sprinkling of smiles and other emoticon crap when I’m engaged in a discussion on LJ, FB, and other social media platforms. There’s a reason for that – I spend a lot of time being concerned about the tone of how what I’m saying is being interpreted. It’s so easy in the vacuum of pure text to project just about any emotion – and it’s usually what we already have bubbling around in the back of our head.

    When it comes to blogging about uncomfortable things, where I really want to address a subject that’s heavily loaded, I try to lead-in by using myself – be it a personal anecdote, experience, or something similar. Failing that, unless I’m really fucking furious and I don’t give a shit, I do my best to preface things with an introduction setting the tone as clearly as possible.

    Granted, that’s just my style, but maybe there’s something here for you too.

    February 25, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    • Good points. I may have to do some reorganizing.

      February 26, 2014 at 1:34 pm

  5. Tanyamazon

    I didn’t know the person who died except by a mutual party or two, but I was in terror when I saw people mourning on FB without disclosing who the lost person was. I also had that awful relief of finding out it wasn’t someone closer to me while watching how it tore apart others.

    This was handled badly by some folks, to be sure. But loss makes us all monsters at some point or another. Grieving can feels like flailing aimless, raging emotional fists in the air. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for someone is let them hit you, and not hit back.

    While I agree with your call-outs about the specifics of what happened for some people, I wasn’t in that situation, and see above re: monsters. What really resonated for me in your OP was the last 3 paragraphs. I like the parts about how we can try to do it a little better next time, maybe.

    February 25, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    • Thanks, I’ll look at what I can trim down to make the good stuff more punchy.

      February 26, 2014 at 1:34 pm

  6. If you wanna call out a culture that’s terrified and confused about discussing death in spite of technology that lets it talk faster and louder than it ever has, and how that plays out in a tight-knit community with a higher than average attrition rate, and how we can do better by ourselves by making sure the same distributed communication that ties us together when we’re having fun is also available and respected when there’s a crisis: awesome. I’m right there with ya. Like, a lot.

    I don’t think people should make themselves the gatekeepers of information about death. If they’re not sure what’s OK to share, they could try asking the survivors. And it wouldn’t hurt for people to occasionally stop and think about what they share.

    But telling struggling people they’re doing it wrong (“Don’t vaguebook about death, you guys”) or describing your position as a “nice, big, sanity-inducing step back” – can’t say I’m with you. Those vaguebookers were probably shocked, hurting, often unpracticed at grief, and baffled by how to handle the stigma around a death like the one you used as an example, and still trying to do their best. They weren’t insane. That “consider yourself lucky” was probably really fucking heartfelt.

    I think a better model of handling tragedy is important to this community. The eye-watering insensitivity I saw all over social media is part of why I checked out of Facebook once the news got out. But I don’t think splitting a community into “crazy, withholding, self-righteous people in the know versus reasonable people who deserve information” is a great model, either. I think your explanations of why people need a timely answer to “Who was it?” stand on their own.

    February 26, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    • Fair points.
      After watching friends be called vultures for asking for information, and after seeing how badly that “consider yourself lucky” comment hurt my friend and upset very many people, I suppose I reacted more strongly than I needed to, so I will take a look at my wording, there. Thank you.

      I am not trying to create some kind of community dichotomy, here, and if that’s what I communicated, I need to look at that, too. I appreciate your thoughts.

      February 26, 2014 at 1:33 pm

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