Tweeting While Grieving / by Rachel Eva Lim

What are the politics of expressing grief via social media platforms?

Once enacted behind closed doors, the grieving ritual has spilled out onto the proverbial streets of the Internet. Be it a celebrity death or the loss of a relative, many people now shun the traditional newspaper obituary or phone call in lieu of a tweet or Facebook post. Has the relocation of this deeply personal event to the social media sphere made it any less genuine or meaningful? And how has this affected our approach to death as a whole?

One of the main selling points of social media grieving is that it allows mourners to tap into their virtual support system during a difficult time. It’s human nature to seek connection and turn to friends and family members for companionship while mourning. The presence of the Internet has just increased this community a hundredfold. Now, large numbers of concerned acquaintances from all corners of the globe are able to quickly and easily express their concern for the bereaved—a gesture that can certainly help one cope with the pain of losing a loved one. 

The intensely public nature of online grieving has also worked to demolish the death taboo. In many societies, especially Asian cultures, it’s considered bad luck to speak of the dead once the funeral rites have concluded. This often presents an obstacle during the prolonged mourning process, as it’s socially unacceptable to process one’s feelings in the company of others. The Internet’s free-for-all nature thus provides a much-needed platform for such individuals to work through their emotions and come to terms with their loss, which they may not have access to in real life.

But there are certain drawbacks to this medium of communication. If we’re not careful, the grieving process can take on the narcissistic qualities that underscore much of our social media activity. Take the influx of tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram tributes that followed the tragic deaths of Paul Walker and Robin Williams. Although many of these showings of support were wholly genuine, a handful of them could’ve been the product of grief bandwagoning. Even matters of death can’t escape the overwhelmingly peer-influenced nature of social media. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of expressing sorrow because everyone in your network is doing it and you don’t want to seem like a huge jerk, or airing your condolences as some form of twisted social currency. 

This gives birth to a contrived version of grieving that lacks sincerity and doesn’t do the bereaved a whole lot of good. The basic intention transforms from a genuine expression of care and concern to a competition of who can best sum up the deceased’s life in 140 characters or manages to assemble the most heartwarming Instagram montage. When played out on social media, death can all too easily transform into public theater. And it’s pretty hard to watch.

Another negative is the transient quality of Internet communication. Unlike the relative permanence of a card or email or the resonance of a face-to-face interaction, virtual grief—like pretty much everything else on social media—quickly disappears into the ether. The likes dwindle. The shares decrease in frequency. The posts memorializing the deceased’s life are relegated to the bottom of someone’s news feed. Throwing grief into the social media fire forces it to jostle with other content for attention. And, unfortunately, its staying power is similarly short-lived. 

While social media grieving can be reassuring and cathartic, perhaps we shouldn’t treat it as the new normal when it comes to offering our condolences. After all, all the likes, shares, and favorites in the world can’t take the place of genuine, tangible human connection.

Commissioned by Ui CULTURE