Dealing with Death on Social Media

Dealing with Death on Social Media

By Conor Linehan

 

This blog post presents a summary of work published in an upcoming paper:

Jamison-Powell, S., Briggs, P., Lawson, S., Linehan, C., Windle, K., and Gross, H. (2016, in press). “PS. I Love You”: Understanding the Impact of Posthumous Digital Messages. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2016, May)

 

A pre-print of the paper is available for download here.

 

One of the recurring findings in research carried out by technology-focused researchers worldwide is that when technology is sent out into the ‘real world,’ people make use of it in ways unforeseen by the designer. For example, saws become musical instruments, a handrail on a stairs becomes a site for skateboard tricks, and tractor tyres become exercise equipment.

 

Social media was designed to function as a space for people to communicate, share ideas, plan and arrange meetings, and discuss shared interests. As people spend increasing amounts of time engaged with social media, sharing increasingly personal content, and forging increasingly strong relationships, it becomes a place in which we encounter increasingly complex and emotional experiences. More specifically to this paper, social technology becomes a place where we are confronted by death in many ways.

 

As Psychologists, it is important to understand the different ways people make use of social media to communicate about death and grief. This can help us understand whether online behavior reflects what we understand as healthy and constructive grieving, or whether it emphasizes problematic aspects of the grieving process. Research on this topic also allows us to consider whether-and-how these technologies should be designed to best support healthy behavior.

 

In this blog post, I begin by discussing briefly how social technology is used as part of death and grieving, before discussing a project recently carried out in collaboration with colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University, Northumbria University and the University of Lincoln in the UK, which explored the concept of ‘posthumous’ digital messaging services – services that allow people to schedule messages to be sent from their social media accounts long after they have died. Please note that Sue Jamison-Powell of Sheffield Hallam carried out the empirical work. The goal of the project was to provide some initial guidance on the design of these services in order to avoid causing unnecessary trauma.

 

Death, Dying and Social Technology

People increasingly make use of social media to document their death (http://jezebel.com/5525536/live-blogging-your-death), to mourn for those that have died (http://time.com/47252/mourning-social-media/), to provide emotional support for the bereaved (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/grieving-in-public-tragedy-on-social-media/360788/) and to provide and seek practical and emotional support for those at the end of life. It has become somewhat the norm that social network site users will communicate their grief by paying respects for their deceased friend via the Internet. In other examples of the phenomena, users create specific spaces in which they can grieve. Analogies have been made between these social media commemorations and gravestones, in that users visit a (virtual) space in which to actively mourn for individuals who have died.

 

Untitled

Figure 1. Screenshot of Facebooks policy regarding memorialisation of accounts.

 

Online memorials

There are many places online where people can mourn those that have died. For example, the World Wide Cemetery (http://cemetery.org/) is a dedicated space where individuals can place memorials for their loved ones. Facebook memorialise the accounts of the deceased on the request of family members. When accounts are memorialised, the profile of the deceased user remains online, allowing members of their personal social network to mourn them.

 

Research examining how individuals use memorial sites has found that those who are in mourning exhibit behaviour that resembles a continuation of the relationship with the deceased. For example, DeGroot (2012) found that people using a Facebook group created as a memorial addressed the deceased directly in their messages, and indicated that they still felt the presence of the deceased in the group. This finding should not be hugely surprising, since the perception of a continuing relationship is a well-established component of the grieving process more generally (Neimeyer, Baldwin & Gillies, 2006). Individuals often imagine the presence of their deceased loved ones, and reconnect with the deceased through activities, conversations with others, and imagined interactions (Field, Gal-Oz & Bonnano, 2003). The novel experience offered by posthumous communication services is the possibility of real messages from the deceased forming part of this imagined continuing relationship.

 

 

ps copy

Figure 2. Poster art for the film “PS I Love You,” the plot of which revolves around posthumous messaging.

 

Posthumous Communication Services

You may be familiar with the best-selling novel (and later, film) ‘PS I Love You’ by Cecilia Aherne. In this tale, a dying husband writes a set of letters to his wife and schedules them to be delivered on specific dates in the future. Upon receiving the letters, she is initially surprised and upset – who wouldn’t be upon receiving letters ‘from the grave’ – and eventually looks forward to them, as they send her on a series of capers that help her to grieve. There are now online services designed and marketed specifically to deliver exactly these kinds of ‘posthumous’ messages, with the exception that instead of physical letters, the messages come in the form of emails, facebook posts, and tweets directly from the deceased persons social media account.

 

Several well-known social media account-management tools, such as Tweetdeck (https://support.twitter.com/articles/20169620) and Hootsuite (https://hootsuite.com/), allow users to schedule messages to be posted, on their behalf, days, weeks, and months into the future. Posthumous communication services can be read as an extension and refinement of this functionality, specifically framing those messages as being “from the grave,” and aiming to improve the satisfaction and acceptability of that process. For example, with Dead Social (http://deadsocial.org/), a “digital executor,” or nominated individual, must activate the service after the user has died, giving the living some control over whether or not the posthumous communications are sent. Given their growing popularity, and the potential for any problems they create to last for a long time, we suggest that the exploration of posthumous communication services is timely.

 

Study

A qualitative study was carried out. 14 participants were recruited and asked to engage in individual semi-structured interviews that lasted 20-40 minutes, focusing on the functions facilitated by one posthumous messaging service. Participants considered posthumous messaging from the perspective of a dying person, a bereaved person, and someone assigned as a “digital executor.” Data was analysed through Thematic Analysis.

 

Summary of Findings

Our analysis identified five themes: Preparedness, Control, Connecting, Artificiality, and Mortality. The first two themes relate directly to psychological research on the grieving process, which discusses ‘grief work’ – the need to work through thoughts and feelings about loss and to relinquish the bond with the deceased. Individuals differ in terms of their emotional preparedness for loss and their ability to gain control of their feelings during the grieving process. Our study suggests that posthumous messaging technology may prove equally harmful or beneficial to people, depending on their preparedness and control through that grieving process.

The final three themes can be grouped under the umbrella term “Transcendence,” as the services transcend many traditional boundaries. These technologies allow users to transcend Mortality, in that users can gain the ability interact with the world long after they have died, they transcend Reality by providing the bereaved with an (admittedly one-sided) dialogue with those who have died, and they transcend Communities by uniting those who are grieving and by connecting the living with the dead.

I encourage those interested to read the full text here.

 

Design guidelines

Our initial intention at the outset if the work was to construct a set of useful design requirements for posthumous communication services that demonstrates consideration and empathy for people who encounter them. Our findings suggest that these services potentially place people in a number of difficult situations whereby they are forced into deciding between maintaining the wishes of the deceased and protecting the best interests of the living. These are summarized below:

 

Conflict #1: individual differences

Situations may arise where the wishes of the deceased directly contradict the wishes of their surviving friends and family. For example, the deceased’s family may find the posthumous messages upsetting and seek ways for them to be stopped, while, conversely, others find those messages comforting. It is unclear whether the living should be allowed the ultimate decision, and whose decision should be considered final.

 

Conflict #2: role of executor

The appointment of an executor is an attempt at implementing a process whereby the living have some control over whether messages are sent as planned. However, this executor role places the chosen person in a position where they may be viewed as responsible for any harm or upset caused by the posthumous messages.

 

Conflict #3: active and passive grief

Research suggests that limiting exposure to emotional stressors during grief is an adaptive coping strategy in the bereaved, and that the inability to avoid stressors results in emotional dysregulation in bereaved individuals. This has been found to have adverse psychological and physical effects. Designers must therefore consider whether they have a duty of care and whether they censor, or otherwise manipulate or mediate, potentially harmful messages.

 

Conflict #4: evolution and death of services themselves

Designers must acknowledge that software platforms, especially those used for social interaction, are constantly evolving and changing. Plans made for scheduling Facebook posts in 2030 may not be possible if Facebook no longer exists, or may not have the desired impact if people have moved on to using other platforms

 

Through the process of generating design requirements for posthumous communication services from our findings, we outline a number of complex, human-centered conflicts that are not easily solvable through technological means alone. These conflicts serve as a useful problematisation of the design space, and are suitable starting points for designers of posthumous communication systems. They also, more generally, serve as propositions for future research on the topic of “thanatosensitive” design.

 

If you would like to find out more about the People and Technology research group at UCC click here or contact conor.linehan@ucc.ie

 

References:

DeGroot, J.M. (2012). Maintaining relational continuity with the deceased on Facebook. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 65, 3: 195-212. http://dx.doi.org/10.2190/OM.65.3.c

 

Field, N.P., Gal-Oz, E., and Bonanno, G.A. (2003). Continuing bonds and adjustment at 5 years after the death of a spouse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 1: 110-117.

http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022- 006X.71.1.110

 

Neimeyer, R.A., Baldwin, S.A., and Gillies, J. (2006). Continuing bonds and reconstructing meaning: Mitigating complications in bereavement. Death Studies, 30, 8: 715-738.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07481180600848322