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The butterfly effect of online grief

Kate Mani |  26 January 2016

A few months ago, someone I know died. We had only met a couple of times, accepted each other's Facebook friend requests, and messaged each other on and off. But I grew to know him well. His face filled my Facebook newsfeed weekly.

Blue butterfly shapeNews travels fast on social media. He had only been gone a few hours but the comments rolled in. Friends, mutual friends, friends of friends all ceased their scrolling when news of the tragedy broke.

Although I hadn't physically seen my friend all year, I had seen his year on Facebook. Social media gave me a magnifying glass on his online life.

The family photos his dad tagged him in. The selfie with his mum he posted on Mother's Day. The effusive posts his parents uploaded on his birthday. His mother's status updates, expressing gratitude at being surrounded by family for Sunday dinner.

For the past year I'd been privy to a colourful and vibrant life. This family displayed their love for each other and their love for their god openly and online. I saw public displays of private emotions.

Online, the barrier between close friend and mere Facebook friend crumbled. Everything he was tagged in, I saw. Everything he commented on, I liked.

Now I see his family's Facebook farewells, and the preceding year of photos makes it even easier to picture their grief.

'He was such a wonderful boy, no wonder God wanted him,' an uncle writes. 'He's with the angels now,' says another relative. His mother posts how much she misses him, begs God to grant him eternal rest.

I witness a family yearning for digital solace, support and compassion through commemorative posts on their boy's Facebook wall.

Social media has changed the face of mourning, extending it beyond the funeral procession, beyond church traditions. The funeral and burial for my friend are over, but the bereavement is still very much in the public domain.

It seems my friend's death will never revert to a matter of private grief. Friends and family continue posting messages of faith, love and loss on his Facebook wall in an endless memorial. I have become a follower in the constant mourning.

Over 14 million Australians are signed up to Facebook, and Facebook's data scientists believe users check their account on average 14 times a day.

When death strikes, posts and reposts spread beyond friends, rippling through the computers, tablets and mobile phones of mutual friends.

This 14 times-a-day exposure to shares and online tributes goes beyond those who knew the victim, drawing strangers into a wave of secondary sadness at the lost friend of a friend. It's a butterfly effect whereby one click, one 'like' causes far-reaching consequences for a wider audience.

Following the death of Melbourne writer and editor Kat Muscat, the newsfeeds of Melbourne's literary community were filled with three words: 'Defiance. Feminism. Empathy.' These words from Muscat's tattoo were shared on social media by those who knew her well and those who did not, causing the sense of loss to reverberate far beyond her immediate family and friends.

Following the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, 53,000 retweets of French artist Jean Jullien's peace sign image incorporating the Eiffel Tower sent a visual message of condolence and solidarity. The French flag filter that coloured Facebook users' profile pictures gave a voice to people around the world who, despite being strangers to the victims and citizens of Paris, invested emotionally in their grief.

These online gestures cannot alter the horror of the situation, but symbolise a connection and a shared humanity.

As I reflect again on my own Facebook friend's death, I reread the messages he and I sent each other. He never logged off. 'Active now' next to his name haunts me. It's eerie that while he's taken his last breath, his online presence endures. I wonder how many French families are still posting on the Facebook pages of their lost loved ones.

Be it the loss of a friend or a city shattered by terror, the 21st century colossus that is social media has reinvented the wheel of commemoration.


Kate ManiKate Mani is a freelance writer with published pieces in The Age, The Australian, Mojo News, Lot's Wife and Viewpoint literary journal.

Main image: Shutterstock



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Submitted comments

Grief is a very tough experience. We hear from counsellors about not setting a time limit on grief, about the personal nature of grief. Once upon a time, I thought people who shared their grief online must be extroverts who needed that solace. Not any more though. Online communities are offering people the chance to talk and share in a way not possible before the internet. There will always be negativity but sitting alongside that are shared experiences that can be very much appreciated.

Pam 26 January 2016

The 'eternal life' of someone who never logged off is powerful in a way I hadn't appreciated before. A friend and spiritual mentor fought until the last minute 'against' a life beyond. A life that she had taught her fellow travellers to look forward to. Up till now it has slightly spooked me that she is 'still here'. Thanks Kate!

Margaret 27 January 2016

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