Grief, Monumentality, Authenticity & Social Media
Sandy Branham & Megan McIntyre
Sandy Branham is an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Communication and Digital Studio Director at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach. Her research interests include digital literacies, digital communication, and veterans studies. Sandy serves as the editor-in-chief of Writing Commons, and her work appears in venues such as Connexions: International Professional Communication Journal and International Journal of Students as Partners (forthcoming, Summer 2019).
Megan McIntyre is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Director at Sonoma State University. Her research interests include digital writing and rhetoric, social media, and postpedagogy. You can find her most recent work in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and Prompt and forthcoming (as of Fall 2019) in Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society.
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“The appropriate site for mourning these ‘unremarkable’ disasters is the Internet as living monument. Mourning is a behavior of both individual and collective identity formation, psychologically and socially” (Ulmer, Electronic Monuments, xiv-xvi)
Introduction: Representing Mourning and Ulmer’s Electrate Monumentality
In a July 2018 piece for the BBC’s Culture section, Critic-at-Large Alastair Sooke traces a brief and selective history of artists’ preoccupations with grief. From Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck’s death portrait of Venetia Stanley to Rodin’s “The Thinker” (who should properly be called “The Mourner” according to one curator of a recent exhibit of the artist’s sculptures) to the many depictions of King Lear’s Cordelia, artists have long grappled with how death and mourning manifest, both for the deceased and for those left behind. Artist Taryn Simon offers one rationale for the breadth and depth of artwork concerned with dying: “It’s a space that’s very difficult to articulate, something that confronts or even confounds language.” Thus art is left, according to Sooke, to try to represent this most basic of human experiences, to find ways of depicting the social and psychological dimensions of loss.
Grief is among those human experiences that seems to exceed language, often in unpredictable ways. There is nothing usual about grief, and so it will come as no surprise that we did not come to this project in the same way we have usually begun academic research projects. There was no original but largely intellectual problem, no reading we had done that caused us to consider what it means to grieve online. Instead, we came to this project the human way. We suffered losses, and we wanted to understand them. Plus, the happenstance of loss is powerful: whatever you were doing in the moments before the trauma is fully realized has a sort of unexpected permanence. For us, by chance, at least some of the moments immediately preceding and succeeding our losses were concerned with the work of Gregory Ulmer, who offers us the MEmorial and the Mystory as ludic approaches to identity formation and exploration.
Ulmer’s MEmorial is not that kind of memorial. It’s a civic exercise that may lead to self-knowledge, but it doesn’t (necessarily) originate in personal loss. There is some resonance between the two, though, between the practices of MEmorial and those of online memorial that we explore in what follows. In their archival work on Ulmer’s electrate inventions, Jeremy Cushman and Alex Layne note that, “a MEmorial doesn’t work. It is performed. In short, the MEmorial is a (digital) monument that has gone ‘live.’” MEmorials, like the internet spaces that they inhabit, are responsive and connective in nature, but they are also performative. Ulmer’s monuments, like the public expressions of grief we discuss, emerge from mourning, “a behavior of both individual and collective identity formation, psychologically and socially” (Electronic Monuments, xvi), from the process through which we both connect and disconnect from social networks in response to traumas.
For Ulmer, the internet provides the appropriate place for revising how we understand, perform, and undergo loss. Ulmer’s MEmorial monumentality is responsive, flexible, cyclical, and continuous. It offers space for a range of experience and for the constant revision of those experiences: “An electronic Rushmore, however, produces a mourning identification that is flexible and diverse rather than one that is carved in stone. An electronic monument is one in which there is a mapping between the individual and the collective, such that the memorializing reveals to the citizens the rhizome that gives rise to the condition in which ‘Problems B Us’ (the EmerAgency slogan)” (13-14). These electrate (digital) sites offer ways to express grief otherwise and to connect our individual losses to a broader, ongoing mourning.
In what follows, we explore our initial impulses toward a project on digital grief and how those impulses were shaped by our encounters with Ulmer’s work. Ultimately, we argue, it is our performance of authentic self/selves—understood, for the two authors of this piece, at least in part, via our encounters with the Mystory and the MEmorial—that was most integral to how we (and those we interviewed) chose to articulate (or not) grief online.
Our project was born in 2013. With the recent passing of Sandy’s father (and the earlier death of Megan’s father), we’d been thinking quite a bit about grief—the ways in which we all express and come to terms with grief in individual ways, as well as the ways in which others in our network react to our grief. Not only were we interested in how individuals choose, or choose not, to express grief in online spaces, we were also interested in how these online spaces allow members of the social network to provide support to the mourner.
A Few Notes on Nonlinear Networks
These online networks are nonlinear, diverse, and fluctuating. Following Ulmer’s investment in the ways that critical theory can reshape our understanding of everyday things, we consider Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the rhizome as a way to conceive of social networking spaces such as Facebook. We find this especially helpful for thinking about the openness of social networks and the ease with which they enable information to be shared and disseminated. Deleuze and Guattari write, “the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature” (409). We think this description is especially useful for explaining social networks: users have limited control over the connections that are made.
Information can be linked and connected in ways in which the user never intended, or even imagined. For example, an announcement of death might show up in our news feed directly above an announcement of birth. This information was not intended to be linked, but it is, by the very nature of its proximity. However, it is also important to consider that the rhizomatic connections that are made on one user’s Facebook wall are very different than the rhizomatic connections made on another user’s page. In this way, we can further conceive of the rhizomatic nature of Facebook, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, as “a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight” (409).
The rhizomatic nature of social media spaces and the very personal nature of our interactions in these spaces led us to a few linked questions: How do users make decisions about whether and how much to share? Do mourners typically find online expressions of emotional support to be genuine and helpful, or are these responses perceived to be more performative in nature? These questions—and our own losses—led us first to literature on social networks and grief.
Traditional Social Networks and the Grieving Process
Traditional social networks—made up of friends, family members, and other real-life acquaintances—play an important role in the grieving process. Most of us are all too familiar with this scenario: after experiencing the death of a loved one, the immediate family often comes together for some period of time to offer comfort and solidarity. During this time, members of the immediate family's social networks—friends, coworkers, neighbors—offer support to the mourners. Some send cards with expressions of sympathy, some send flowers, some simply offer comfort, but most of them send food. This activity traditionally takes place in the days and weeks immediately following the death, with support waning after several weeks.
Additionally, according to work by Breen and O’Connor on the effects of bereavement on social networks, while social networks often become stronger immediately following the death of a loved one, it is more likely that, over time, these relationships will “deteriorate and collapse,” commonly as a result of disagreements regarding appropriate ways in which to grieve or respond to grief. Many of Breen and O’Connor’s research participants reported hearing dismissive comments from friends and co-workers—not surprisingly, these dismissive comments are traditional components of the grief narrative, such as comments that indicate that everyone grieves in the same way, that the grief will pass or subside with time, that the mourner should be taking the ‘appropriate’ time to grieve, rather than returning to work, school, or other duties, or that it is time for the mourner to “move on” (108). Family relationships typically broke down when family members disagreed about how the deceased should be remembered or about representations of appropriate grieving, while friendships often suffered as a result of a shift of the survivor's perspective after experiencing the death of a loved one (112).
Online Social Networks and the Grieving Process
However, the growth and ubiquity of social media spaces, like Facebook, alter the ways in which grief is traditionally displayed. In “Logging On and Letting Out: Using Online Social Networks to Grieve and to Mourn,” Brian Carroll and Katie Landry assert that social networking sites are “altering the process of mourning” (341). Carroll and Landry argue that individuals choose to memorialize the dead on social networking sites for several reasons: geographical convenience allows users to grieve from their own homes; online memorials “provide more opportunities for change and development over time than do gravesites, printed obituaries, and memorial services”; social networking sites allow for the creation of bereavement communities that “overcome the distance and separation of the deceased’s social network” (346); and social networking sites allow for “the ability to connect to the deceased in an effort to find or effect closure,” to “avoid the social awkwardness of not knowing what to say to family and friends,” and allow users to examine the grief of other mourners (348). Ultimately, many of these reasons for expressing grief on social networking sites hearken back to a search for connectedness.
However, Marwick and Ellison note that the openness of social media “both encourages performative displays of mourning and allows wider audiences to pay respects” (378). This is beneficial to mourners because the visibility of social media and its interactive nature invites response. Traditionally, mourners would publish an announcement of death in the local newspaper. Although this practice still occurs, this action is not interactive in nature. Although the announcement may reach extended members of the mourner’s social network and invite a response to the mourning, this procedure is much more complex in a print-based culture than it is within an online space. Marwick and Ellison consider this immediacy to be both beneficial and potentially harmful. It is beneficial in that Facebook allows “people to express grief and mourn with friends in a familiar setting” while also “reaching a wide audience of people who knew the deceased” (395). However, this immediacy can also be harmful to mourners, particularly when comments are made about the deceased that disagree with the way in which the mourner wishes the deceased to be remembered.
Not only do online social networks introduce immediacy into the grieving process by allowing mourners to share their grief and friends to respond to that grief at any time, the Internet also allows grief to extend past traditional notions of appropriate time and space. In their article “Death and Grief On-line: Virtual Memorialization and Changing Concepts of Childhood Death and Parental Bereavement on the Internet,” Mitchell et al. explain this transition: prior to the widespread usage of online spaces, “grief and bereavement [were] confined to specific times and places, and [were] mainly private or secluded experiences” (413). Online social networks allow users to publicize their grief—no longer is grieving relegated to the abject spaces of the cemetery or the funeral home, and no longer is grief something that we are expected to deal with in private. Now, '“family and friends of the deceased [are given the opportunity] to grieve whenever and however they wish” (416). Thus, social media shifts grieving practices in at least two ways: first, online spaces enable immediate announcements about and responses to loss. Second, social media allows for extended time and avenues for displaying grief and offering condolence. Here, we would point again to Ulmer’s discussions of how electracy allows for flexible, revisable, and experiential monuments. Electronic monuments are accessible sites for ongoing mourning for individuals and for larger communities.
The immediacy factor was particularly important in Megan’s decision to share her grief online, as she describes below.
Megan’s Narrative: Losing My Dad and Letting Them Know
It was overcast the day my dad died. I remember because it seemed so appropriate. I had gotten the call in the middle of the night on Sunday, December 16, 2012. It was a text message, actually: “Are you awake?” My older brother, the only one of my siblings who lives close to my parents, had gotten a call from the hospital: my dad was being admitted with septic pneumonia. He was conscious, and he was cranky.
Earlier that year, my dad had been admitted to Barrow County Hospital with numbness and loss of motor control. One of the ER doctors diagnosed him almost immediately: Guillian-Barre, a disease of the peripheral nervous system that causes acute ascending paralysis. The neurologist administered immunoglobulins, and within a few days, feeling and movement returned. When my dad was readmitted with the same symptoms a month later, however, the neurologist was stumped. We were told it might be multiple sclerosis or another rarer kind of relapsing polyneuropathy. But it took four months and a doctor eight hours away before he was properly diagnosed. My dad had chronic inflammatory demylenating polyneuropathy; there was no cure, and the treatments—steroids, immunoglobulins, and plasma electrophoresis—all had limited viability and/or life threatening side effects. Of particular concern, we were told, was that the immunoglobulin treatment, which he had four times in less than six months, would damage his kidneys and compromise his immune system. Common colds, bronchitis, and other common ailments could kill him. Over the course of those six months, I scoured medical journals, social media, and web forums for information on his disease. I reached out to my nurse and doctor friends on Facebook to ask if they knew anything about CIDP or knew of a great neurologist we could see.
After the ordeal we’d faced from May until that Sunday night ten days before Christmas, we were pretty used to hospitals. He’d always come out of the hospital annoyed but alive, ready to get back to his riding lawnmower, his cars, and his dog. I don’t think any of us thought this time would be any different. We were wrong.
By 4 pm on Sunday afternoon, it was clear that his kidneys were shutting down. He wasn’t going to survive this trip to the hospital. Once again on the phone with my older brother, I frantically packed a bag, grabbed my dog, and headed home. The whole way there I prayed: please let me make it home in time. A little after midnight, I dropped my dog off with a friend of my brother’s and trekked the last few miles to hospital. That night, my eldest brother (who had also driven the 500+ miles between Dunedin and Lawrenceville) and I slept on the hard tile floor in my dad’s ICU room. In the morning, when my other brother joined us, and with my sister on the phone, we asked the doctor to stop the powerful blood pressure medication that was keeping my father alive. A little less than six hours later, he was gone.
My mom and I stayed with him until the funeral home arrived, then kissed him goodbye and headed the hour back to Winder. It was after 6 pm by the time we made it home. I had kept in touch with a few friends via text message, but I hadn’t been on Facebook in a few days, so sitting in the living room of my parents’ small home and surrounded by my dad’s things, I logged on. Of my three siblings, two of them, my sister and my eldest brother, use Facebook, and when I logged in, I found that both of them had noted my dad’s passing in their most recent status updates. Some of my parents’ friends who are also on Facebook had begun sending me messages, and instead of responding individually, I posted a status of my own.
The response was swift and immensely kind: friends from the church we’d attended during my formative years, friends from high school, friends from college and grad school, all expressed sympathy, and those who’d known my dad shared remembrances. It was touching, so I showed my mom. She was awestruck by the outpouring of support. Not familiar with social media, she found the support entirely unexpected. But it was then, as it is now, a great comfort for her—and for me—to see that kind of supportive response.
In the days that followed, we planned his memorial service, a celebration he would have loved, complete with lots of food and an improvised cruise-in car show. We went through family photos selecting ones to frame. Many of those photos eventually ended up on my Facebook wall, a digital monument of sorts to my father’s life.
For me, Facebook is a strange place: not quite a professional space, my Facebook friends represent almost every facet of my life, including professional connections to professors, mentors, and scholars that I admire. For this reason, I was very thoughtful about how I expressed my grief following my father’s passing. I posted pictures and a few quotations but not the kind of deeply personal expressions I see from others in my network. Instead, I sought to balance the creation of a public, digital monument to my father’s life and the need to project a semi-professional identity.
It was important to me, however, to say something about his passing in this strangely public yet personal space. I needed to acknowledge the loss. I needed to make it real. And part of the process was telling my Facebook world that my dad was gone.
The first post was, as I note above, an attempt to balance the nature of this kind of loss, my deep grief, and the hard truth that my relationship with my father was a complicated one.
The response was immediate and powerful. And represented a significant cross-section of my Facebook friends. The responses represented here came from a childhood friend, a high school teacher, two friends from graduate school, and one of my parents’ friends.
The responses were comforting; they felt authentic, and they helped me start processing a world that no longer included my father.
Understanding the Responses to Megan’s Grief
Megan’s post accomplishes several things: not only is she able to announce her father’s death to the members of her online social network, she can also assume that this news will spread to interested parties, such as extended family members or family friends, who may not be Facebook users. Additionally, Megan is able to express her grief, which encourages members of her network to offer support. This support is evident when looking at the responses this post received: all told, 17 members of her network “liked” her post, while 54 members of her network offered a supportive comment. Most respondents offered their sympathy and stated that they would pray for or think about the family. (It’s important to note here that this post was before Facebook diversified the “reaction” options for posts; “like” was the only non-comment-based option available to members of Megan’s social network.)
Interestingly, only one of the 54 comments offered any additional support.
This comment, made by one of Megan’s classmates, is pictured above, and offers Megan comfort outside of the confines of Facebook by inviting Megan to stop by her office or to make social plans. However, it is also important to note that Megan and this person were close friends who worked together and interacted in person on a regular basis.
As expected, particularly in light of Breen and O’Connor’s discussion of support from the social network declining over time, although Megan continued to post about her feelings regarding the loss of her father, none of these posts received the same amount of feedback from the social network as her initial expression of grief. It is also interesting to note that although the announcement of her father's death resulted in a significant number of comments with fewer likes, later posts expressing her grief resulted in more likes than comments. The images below are presented in chronological order, beginning with a discussion of her father's funeral, and ending with Megan’s most recent post about her father, which refers to a blog post she wrote about loss.
Sandy first asked Megan to discuss her experiences with sharing grief on Facebook primarily because Megan and Sandy have had very similar life experiences, yet have chosen very different ways to express our grief. We were both women in English-based PhD programs, who grew up in the same small town, and who both lost their fathers recently and unexpectedly. When Sandy asked Megan about her decisions to share her grief, Sandy was surprised at her response. Megan’s decision to share her grief via Facebook was influenced by her siblings; since her siblings posted about the death of their father, Megan felt pressured to post as well. However, she says that she is happy with her decision, because “the messages were an encouragement to [her] mom, who isn't on Facebook.” While she says that all of the messages she received did seem sincere, the most meaningful responses were from those individuals who she also maintained a close relationship with outside of the online social network, as we see with the response from her classmate, discussed above (see Image 3).
The ways in which Megan chooses to respond to expressions of grief is likely influenced by her own experiences with receiving support on Facebook. She chooses to offer support only to those whom with she already has an established relationship, and she also strives to extend her support outside of social media, by calling or texting.
Sandy made a very different decision, but as you’ll see from her narrative below, many of the same considerations drove her choices.
Sandy’s Narrative: Unexpected Loss and Private Mourning
My father passed away unexpectedly in September of 2013, at the age of 64. He was in significant physical pain in the last several years of his life, as a result of untreated back and knee injuries. My dad was also a veteran of the Vietnam War, and he possessed some service-related injuries, some physical and some psychological. He drank and smoked heavily throughout adulthood, and he had COPD as a result of his smoking. However, at the age of 55, he stopped smoking and drinking at his doctor’s insistence. While he was not healthy at the end of his life, his death was sudden and unexpected.
The morning of his death, my father woke my mother up and asked her to take him to the hospital. Several hours later, he was on a ventilator. In the afternoon, he experienced a heart attack and pulmonary failure, and he passed away. My mother and I, and a close friend of the family, were at the hospital, and my uncle and grandmother (my father’s brother and mother) were on the way.
I left the room to meet my uncle and grandmother at the entrance to the hospital wing, so that I could break the news gently. I remember being quite concerned about how my grandmother would react. I don’t recall what exactly I said to them, but for some reason, my words did not register with my grandmother. She went ahead to his room, stood around with everyone, and finally asked why there were no machines attached to my father’s body. And then I found myself breaking the news all over again.
For me, the process of sharing the news of my father’s death was extremely painful. At this point, my sister knew that our dad was in the hospital and that things were not looking good, but she did not yet know our dad had died. I don’t even remember making the call to tell her, but I do remember trying to get my uncle to make the call instead.
Over the next few days, friends and family learned of my father’s death in the usual ways—through phone calls, texts, and word of mouth. My father did not have a social media presence and spent very little, if any, time online, and neither did the majority of his friends. However, I was active on social media, and so was my sister (technically, my half-sister, paternally). We are both connected to her friends and her side of the family, and I am also connected with my mother’s side of the family. But, because family members had already learned of his death in the usual ways, sharing my father’s death on social media was not necessary for the purposes of information sharing. I did, though, struggle with whether or not to post about his death for personal reasons. On one hand, I wanted to experience the cathartic effect of sharing my pain with my friends and acquaintances, and I wanted to benefit from the support of my digital network. However, I am also a fairly private person when it comes to my personal life—particularly when it comes to sharing my personal life in social media spaces—and, as a result, I found myself uncomfortable with the idea of publicizing my father's death via Facebook.
My decision not to share my father’s death via social media was also influenced by family dynamics; though my sister and I share the same biological father, she grew up with her mother and a step-father. My sister and father did not develop a relationship until my sister reached adulthood and, as a result, sharing on Facebook that my (and my sister’s) father died, would have likely created some confusion for my sister’s contacts, many of whom likely do not know that her step-father is not her biological father.
However, as a result of my discomfort, the majority of my friends, many of whom knew my father, were not aware that he died. I struggled with my decision, and my internal struggle sparked an interest in the connection between social networks and grief. However, and like Megan, I am happy with my decision not to share my grief digitally. For me, grief (and feelings in general) are personal and private. Not only was I not willing to open myself emotionally to the process of publicizing my grief, I was also not interested in platitudes. I knew that the only responses to my grief that would be meaningful to me were those from the people I was most connected with, and because I was able to share my grief with them in more traditional ways, I did not (and do not) feel the need to share my grief with my online social network.
Understanding Electronic Memorial Decisions through Focused Interviews
Neither Sandy nor Megan are alone in their respective decisions. To better understand the decision making process of others grappling with memorializing (or not) loved ones in semi-public digital spaces, we conducted a series of seven qualitative interviews with participants who responded to an open call; the call was shared via email with colleagues and friends as well as via social media (Facebook and Twitter).
For most participants, sharing their grief online seemed like a normal part of their grieving process. Like Megan, S.L. and T.D. chose to create ongoing memorials to lost loved ones. S.L. is a middle-class woman in her 30s; she works as a professional medical records technician and, at the time of her interview, posted frequently to social media, including Facebook. During her interview, S.L. noted that losing her mother at an early age, prior to the widespread popularity of online social networking, influenced her choices when sharing grief online. As a result, although she did not announce her mother's death online, she does post about missing her mother, particularly on her mother's birthday or around certain holidays. S.L. states that her decisions to share her continued grief are “an effort of remembrance. Having lost my mother at a young age, it is important to me not to forget her. Expressing this on Facebook not only allows me to memorialize her, but it also allows other members of my network to be reminded of her. Not just her death, but her life as well.” This indicates that S.L. is not concerned with the responses she receives, but instead posts with the motivation of preserving her mother's memory. Her lack of interest in the nature of responses she receives is evident when she states that “it doesn’t matter if the responses are sincere or not. What matters is that people remember her.”
Like Megan and S.L., T.D chose to share her grief over losing her daughter on social media. T.D. uses social media to connect with colleagues and with clients as well as to participate in other kinds of online communities. She posts to Facebook, in particular, a few times a day, on average. In August of 2012, T.D. lost her daughter to suicide after what she calls a “a 20+ year challenge with emotional issues and addictions.” T.D. says that she chose to speak almost exclusively on social media about her loss because her work had put her in contact with a significant network of bereaved parents, and she had seen the value of that network for people she had supported in their grief: “I . . . have a network of bereaved parents with which I share supportive quotes, inspiring encouragement and personal support at the time of their child’s birthday/date of death, Mother’s Day, etc.” Sharing her own loss, then, was meant “to share compassion, to educate, to offer support.” The loss of her daughter had challenged her more traditional support structure almost to the point of breaking, and “the deep loss of my child greatly reduced my community in general . . . it is almost exclusively on FB now.” What T.D. needed, she said, after such a devastating loss, was a community, and sharing via social media, “it gives me community.”
But not all respondents sought such community from Facebook. Like Sandy, J.E. did not choose to express his grief through Facebook. J.E. is a military veteran in his early 30s and a professional medical technologist. In his response, J.E. states that, in his opinion, both sharing and responding to grief through an online social network seem contrived. He chooses not to share his grief on Facebook because he doesn't want to “look for sympathy or pity from anyone.” J.E. believes that to publicize grief is to openly solicit an emotional response from others. Perhaps not surprisingly, he also chooses not to offer support to others who share their grief online. He writes that if he were to offer any support, “it would be limited to something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry that happened.’” While such a generic expression of grief is not necessarily insincere, this individual indicates that online expressions of grief are a “cry for help,” and that, as a result, those who respond to online expressions of grief may be acting in accordance with their perceptions of social norms, rather than expressing genuine concern for the mourner.
This objection aligns with other research on the connections between social media and authenticity. In their work on Twitter, danah boyd and Alice Marwick note the connections between identity construction, context collapse, and authenticity. Authenticity, they argue, based on their discussions with popular Twitter users, is among the most significant type of credibility in social media spaces: authentic identity and engagement are necessary for those who wish to successfully navigate social media spaces. In general, authenticity might be defined in at least two ways: first, authenticity may measure how closely one’s digital persona matches one’s “real-world” identity (Busher and James; Haimson, et al.; James and Busher; Marwick). Of more interest to our study, however, authenticity may also measure the degree to which social media interactions suggest genuine connection or care (boyd and Marwick; Marwick). As Marwick notes in her discussion of authenticity and commodification on fashion blogs, her participants sometimes described authenticity as “a connection with and responsiveness to the audience.” It is this sense of authenticity that concerns us here: to what extent do mourners experience social media comments and interactions as authentic? For those who chose to share online, there tended to be a connection between finding the responses authentic and supportive and continuing to share; of the four participants who chose to share, all four said they found most or all responses to their loss to be authentic. Of the three participants who chose not to share, all indicated that a perceived lack of authenticity in social media spaces impacted that decision.
Personal Grief in Semi-Public Spaces
Like so much of what we’ve tried to do in this piece, coming to an appropriate conclusion is difficult for us. Coming to this work in the way that we did, from our personal experiences with loss in the internet age, has been a challenge in many ways. Thinking about our losses and analyzing our decisions to share or not to share these losses has been a painful process. However, this process—of drafting our narratives, articulating an interview protocol and questions, conducting interviews with others who have also suffered loss, and trying to synthesize these experiences above—has also been illuminating. Not only have we learned more about ourselves, we have also learned more about each other. While sharing this experience has strengthened our friendship, this project could have easily resulted in the sort of breakdown of relationships described by Breen and O’Connor. We want to acknowledge the ways that we have been lucky to maintain our networks (with each other and, for Megan, with her online community) while noting that some of our participants weren’t quite so lucky: J.F., who at the time of her interview worked as a contingent faculty member at a number of writing programs in the southeastern US, lost her husband suddenly nine months before her interview with us. In her interview, J.F. describes how the lack of adequate support from her online network has caused resentment and fractured some once-close relationships. Allow us to quote her at some length:
It really hurt me when people did not acknowledge my INITIAL grief on FB (if they had not sent me a message elsewhere; I’m speaking of people who would not otherwise call, text, email, or visit me during the days following [my husband’s] passing). I am not the kind of person who gathers “likes” or gets offended at a lack of birthday acknowledgements, but [my husband’s] death, after waiting so long to finally meet someone I was compatible with, was (is) devastating and I did want some acknowledgement that the worst thing that could ever happen to me had, indeed, happened. In this situation, I feel like commenting on FB was, quite literally, the least someone can do; anything less was (is) not acceptable.
We appreciate J.F.’s response here because it offers insight into how loss and a lack of response from online support networks can strain those ties and leave the bereaved feeling further hurt or vulnerable.
Because of the personal nature of this project and our limited sample size, we have not, of course, uncovered any essential truths about the nature of online social networks and their role in the grieving process. However, we can note some commonalities in how and why we, and our participants, chose to respond to our grief in particular ways. As discussed above, for us and our participants, decisions about sharing grief in digital social networks were heavily influenced by perceptions of the authenticity of communication in social networking spaces, generally speaking. Those of us who tended to perceive the type of communication that often occurs in social networking spaces as attention-seeking or inauthentic were less likely to share our grief than those of us who perceive social networking interactions to be genuine and authentic expressions of the self. Additionally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, participants who posted more frequently, in general, were more likely to share their grief with the members of their digital social networks. Finally, those of us who chose not to share our grief could also be described as stoic in our face-to-face interactions, thus representing an authenticity in our social networking personas that we did not necessarily attribute to others.
We would end, then, by noting one additional debt we owe to the work of Gregory Ulmer. In constructing this piece, approximately five years after suffering our losses, we revisited Ulmer’s work on identity and identity formation and encountered Avatar Emergency, an entire book dedicated to better articulation of a performative, electrate sense of identity and personhood. Ulmer offers avatar as a way of understanding and performing identity differently in our electrate epoch. Avatar, Ulmer argues, describes “that part of you inhabiting cyberspace (for lack of a better term)” (ix). Avatar, though, is not a carefully crafted digital self (he uses “brand” to describe that sort of curated self) but rather the accumulation of online actions and decisions -- large and small: “You and I need to meet the avatar that we already have, that we already are . . . Avatar knows more than you or I do, or rather, it knows better than you or I do about what to do now, or what you or I truly know and understand and value and wish in our various respective situations. This claim must be not only understood, but undergone. It is not only an idea, a theory, but an experience” (ix). Avatar operates, for us, as a new sense of selfhood and offers a new kind of authenticity, one that more carefully and fully accounts for our experiences and decisions. Avatar is not constructed via careful reflection but produced as an excess of the decisions we make, often instinctually, about how we are to be online. This process was illuminating in any number of ways, but perhaps most vitally, it introduced us to ourselves online, to our avatars.
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