Media Releases

U of T Research examines the implications of mourning on Facebook

February 6, 2014

TORONTO, ON – With increas­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty, rel­a­tives, friends and col­leagues find out some­one they know or love has died via social media.

A Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to research paper, “Vir­tu­al Mourn­ing and Mem­o­ry Con­struc­tion on Face­book: Here Are the Terms of Use,” was recent­ly pub­lished in the Bul­letin of Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy & Soci­ety.  The researchers inves­ti­gat­ed the online infor­ma­tion prac­tices of peo­ple griev­ing, com­mem­o­rat­ing, and mourn­ing a loved one through the pop­u­lar social media chan­nel, Face­book.

Pro­fes­sor Rhon­da McEwen and Librar­i­an Kath­leen Scheaf­fer, at the Fac­ul­ty of Infor­ma­tion (iSchool), Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, teamed up to exam­ine how, or whether, mourn­ing prac­tices and Facebook’s terms of use poli­cies have impli­ca­tions for the bereaved and/or the mem­o­ry of the deceased.

McEwen and Scheaf­fer com­pared tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of griev­ing (e.g., print obit­u­ar­ies, radio announce­ments) with Facebook’s fea­tures (e.g., pages, mes­sages, pro­files), ana­lyzed doc­u­ments, car­ried out one-on-one inter­views, and con­duct­ed sur­veys with near­ly 20 Face­book users who have had a loved one die after 2008.

Face­book has had a “memo­ri­al­iz­ing pro­ce­dure” in place since 2007, leav­ing the deceased’s estate options in the hands of friend and rel­a­tives.

When cop­ing with the loss of anoth­er, Face­book is a famil­iar tool that gives instant access for users to share their emo­tions, and a large user base, mak­ing it a nat­ur­al place for mourn­ers to gath­er vir­tu­al­ly for group sup­port (via com­ment, “likes”, pho­tos, etc).  “Loved ones can con­tin­ue an online rela­tion­ship with the deceased for per­son­al and col­lec­tive expres­sion,” the authors report.

How­ev­er, users could also inad­ver­tent­ly erode or neg­a­tive­ly affect the deceased’s mem­o­ry, alter the estab­lished image of who and what the deceased inten­tion­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed.  Addi­tion­al­ly, the research found that con­tri­bu­tions of the bereaved on the deceased’s pro­file can, in some cas­es, fos­ter an envi­ron­ment of com­pe­ti­tion among mourn­ers (e.g., who loved her the most).

“The imme­di­a­cy of being able to pub­lish griev­ing and memo­ri­al­iz­ing com­ments, mes­sages, wall posts, pho­tos, and so on has direct con­se­quences for the deceased’s cura­tion of self – the inten­tion­al online con­tent cre­ation and con­tent edit­ing to rep­re­sent an inten­tion­al per­sona,” the researchers say.

Through sev­er­al exam­ples, McEwen and Scheaf­fer show how the pro­file of a deceased may no longer reflect their image, but rather the remem­bered life of the user’s Face­book friends. “The individual’s mem­o­ry archive becomes a social archive. The online self-cura­tion of the deceased is over­rid­den.”

To avoid this prac­tice, the researchers give three rec­om­men­da­tions in their arti­cle:

  • “Face­book should offer ‘dig­i­tal estate options’ to users at sign up, and allow cur­rent users this option now. Every­one should have the abil­i­ty to amend their deci­sion.”
  • “Shut off the abil­i­ty to mod­i­fy a deceased’s Face­book account and leave the work as it is. Face­book should delete every­thing after 50 years.”
  • “The Face­book pro­file of deceased mem­bers should be frozen, but remain acces­si­ble to Face­book friends with the same pri­va­cy fil­ters enabled, but the direct mes­sage func­tion dis­abled. The pro­file would not be search­able online. Instead, loved ones can cre­ate memo­r­i­al pages, there­by own­ing the dig­i­tal con­tent and cura­tion.”

Access the full study

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For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Kath­leen O’Brien
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Offi­cer
Fac­ul­ty of Infor­ma­tion
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Voice: 416–978-7184
Fol­low Infor­ma­tion on Twit­ter @ischool_TO