Living in the Brave New World of Social Media: Posting a Death on Facebook

Living in the Brave New World of Social Media: Posting a Death on Facebook October 23, 2012

The pervasiveness of social media forces us to ask new questions about how we live together in healthy, just ways. Sometimes the social media questions have to do with global questions of free speech and oppression. Sometimes, however, they have to do with how we live rightly as friends, families, colleagues, and neighbors.

A recent article in the “Fashion and Style” section of the New York Times responds to the question of whether it is appropriate or not to post the death on Facebook. Here’s the letter that Philip Galanes, advice columnist for the Times, uses to set up the problem:

A few hours after my ex-husband died, our son (in his early 20s) tweeted the news and posted it on his Facebook page. I was appalled. And my ex’s widow was (and remains) furious with him about it. The only person who doesn’t see anything wrong with his behavior is my son. Is there a generation gap at work here, or did he make a serious gaffe? – Carole, New York

Here’s the essence of Galanes’ response:

To me, Facebook and Twitter are too chilly for sharing tragedies with our nearest and dearest. Not to mention that these posts would be sandwiched between gags by Jimmy Fallon and clips of Honey Boo Boo. On the other hand, social media seem well suited for spreading the word to workaday pals — after our first- (and possibly second-) tier folks have been notified. . . .

But for your son, who probably picks up the phone to speak rarely, if ever, his impulse would be to text and tweet and post his sad news on Facebook.

I think Carole asks the right question when she wonders, “Is there a generation gap at work here?” Though there are some senior citizens who spend a great deal of time on Facebook, and though there are some in the under-25 crowd by eschew social media, for the most part we do have a wide generation gap when it comes to the role of social media in people’s lives. For Carole’s son, it was completely natural to share on Facebook something significant in his life. It’s how he communicates with his friends – both the Facebook and the embodied variety. It’s a way of notifying people and of seeking emotional support.

In a world permeated by social media, yet in which different sub-cultures engage social media differently, how can we live together in a way that is mutually respectful and kind? What do you think?

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  • nanbush

    I would like to ask Carole why she was appalled. An obituary in the newspaper is also transient, surrounded by ads, humor, the ongoing news of dailiness, and is read by strangers. How is Facebook different? Is it who controls the information?

  • TomB

    Good questions here. Yes, there’s a generational gap. Still, I appreciate being informed as quickly as possible about something important like this.

    I wouldn’t have seen his post, by the way, because I do not do Facebook. Somebody would’ve had to call or e-mail me. The Mom’s and ex-wife’s dismay with son’s posting is beyond my understanding, and I’m no kid.

  • TomB

    To clarify, I agree that I would not like to hear of my wife’s death on Facebook. However, if it’s a distant relative or infrequent friend or acquaintance, no problem.

  • Excellent point, Nanbush, and I think you nailed it here. This is a matter of trust. Some of us have learned to trust social media because we have internalized the rules of engagement there. Others still prefer old media newspapers and television, because they have internalized those rules of engagement.

    For me this all comes down to whether or not people are comfortable in the new social space.

  • Ray

    The immediacy of the information is the issue, I believe. In your example of a newspaper obituary, no one in the family’s close circle of friends would have first learned of the death through the newspaper. That information is disseminated after a considerable time lag during which all of the close friends and family would have been notified personally. For the son, who would have been one of the first people to know about the death, to post it for open public consumption before the family had a chance to share the bad news personally showed a lack of decorum on his part. I don’t blame his family for being upset.
    Regardless of what medium is used to communicate with friends and family – personal visit, phone call, email, text, facebook, tweeting, smoke signals or carrier pigeon – the immediate family and close friends should be notified before the “general public.” That’s just good taste. Or, at least it used to be back when folks still had manners.

  • Kristen inDallas

    Don’t think it has as much to do with social media as it has to do with the “few hours.” In that time, I imagine that Mom and Step-mom still had plenty of phone calls to make to other relatives and family friends who deserved something more intimate than reading the news on facebook. If he had waited a few more hours or offered to help make some phone calls before posting, then I can’t see any issues. Even then, I think it’s overreacting. The father/son relationship is about as close as it gets, and while I’m sure an aunt would prefer to find out another way, you can hardly blame a kid for grieving before you knew. For my grandmother (who had a facebook page and was very hip like that) it was really nice to see all the posts and pictures going up from family and friends, helps you know you aren’t alone. The next day her profile was like a little memorial with dozens of posts from her loved ones, really beautiful, before the funeral had even been aranged.

  • dutchgirl

    I think one issue might be that of timing. I would want close relatives and friends to be told in person or by phone. After that, a facebook announcement wouldn’t bother me (I’m in my 50’s). However, if I knew that it would bother my parent or other relative who was directly concerned, I would send private messages to friends, rather than make a blanket facebook announcement. It’s not worth causing a rift in a family.

  • Regarding timing: when should people know? People usually find out between hours to days later usually via 3rd parties. The widow(er) has to call others, then they call other relatives, then maybe weeks later friends of the deceased will find out.

    The fact that the announcement goes out sooner and to everyone at once is a strength of social networking, not a drawback. No one has to wonder why they weren’t told sooner, those survived don’t have to spend energy announcing it to anyone, but rather receive more support sooner.

    Of course if the immediate family didn’t know yet, for instance, his sisters, or the deceased parents, that might be too soon. That’s the only exception I can think of.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    A much better question is- who have you entrusted with your facebook password in the case of untimely demise? Who will post your death on your facebook page?