Twitter doesn't really care about death
How do you want your social media footprint to look when you die
Before social media hit the scene, the death of a celebrity might be briefly mentioned on the news with the possibility of an obituary in the newspaper. If they were very famous, there might be a commemorative program on TV, or a weekend showing of their most memorable films.
There was nowhere for the general public to share their memories of the star. Of course they could chat about them in the office lunch break, mention it to relatives and friends by phone, but they had nowhere to publicly air their views.
Communal mourning, before social media, could be described as mainly family based grieving. Specific communities came together to celebrate the life of the deceased through religious ceremonies and organized funerals. Churches might open their doors to allow members of the community to enter for private prayer. When an entire nation grieved as in the case of the death of Princess Diana, people travelled to London in their thousands just to feel part of the experience and to legitimise their personal grief.
Twitter has changed the grief environment.
It is now not only appropriate, but expected, that people should offer condolences to anyone who has suffered recent bereavement.
It is common to see posts stating that the author’s aunt/uncle/father/mother/grandmother has just died. Despite the fact that the person who died is entirely unknown to anyone on Twitter, it is expected that there will be multiple replies in the vein of ‘so sorry for your loss’, ‘sending you condolences’, ‘thinking of you’.
One post I saw from a young woman who had lost her grandmother to Covid, was followed the next day by an angry post from her complaining that no-one had responded.
Why was it so important to have multiple responses I wonder?
Do the younger generation see Twitter as their first port of call when announcing any family tragedy?
Where is the respect for the deceased in this scenario? They might be turning in their graves if they knew that the details of their last illness were discussed in an open forum for all the world to see.
And that is the problem.
Not only are people sharing apparently sincere thoughts and messages, but others are commenting on the mode of death and the lifestyle of the deceased. A young man dies as a result of suicide and people question why the family didn’t notice his distress? A minor celebrity dies and suddenly all his infidelity is laid out for comment, with no consideration for the effect that such discussion must have on the grieving family.
There do not appear to be any rules.
There is an assumption that once dead, the person in question no longer has any rights to their privacy. Even the process of removing the identity of a deceased person from social media is only now been taken seriously, with proof of death needed. There have been many cases of identities having been removed in error in the past, sometimes as a result of misinformation, at other times due to vindictiveness.
We should all be concerned about what happens to our social media footprint when we die.
It is becoming more common for users to wish to have their accounts memorialized when they die. This is certainly the case with Facebook, where friends and family frequently post their thoughts and memories on the deceased’s account on the anniversary of their death, or at significant events such as birthdays and Christmas.
There is less personal connection with Twitter users. Consequently, discussion has become a free for all and the previously private rituals of mourning have exploded into a conscienceless open forum.
I have no problem with having a more open discussion about death. It is important that there is a healthy understanding of death and grieving, and I am sure that sharing grief is helpful to the bereaved. But only if it is shared with sympathetic and caring people, who are close enough to the bereaved to be able to comprehend their specific circumstances.
Twitter does not fulfil this function.
If anyone in my family circle or among my close friends loses their life, in whatever manner, I will not be posting about it on Twitter. I respect their lives and their privacy.
When I am dead and gone, I would be grateful if you ignored the urge to discuss me on Twitter. I would like to have some control over my legacy and I will be perfectly happy with an old fashioned obituary in the newspaper.
Previously published on Medium