Social media is a curious thing: while social media users constantly blame it for ruining relationships between one another, they also praise it for bringing them closer with people whom they may have least expected to form some kind of relationship with. This may just be the case for the social media users in “How Social Media Is Changing the Way We Approach Death” by Paul Bisceglio of The Atlantic. However, these people are not your typical social media users who turn to social media sites for the sake of following the norm; Instead, they are those who cope with the concept of death through the use of social media.
In our world, death has always been a very sensitive topic. So sensitive, in fact, that when NPR’s Scott Simon live-tweeted his mother’s death from the hospital, not only did people find such a matter to be morbid, but also exploitative. However, people only expressed such mixed reactions because they were not used to the fact that a person, nonetheless a public figure, had made such a private matter become so public for his 1.26 million Twitter followers to see. But now the concept of death and the way we approach it on social media is slowly but progressively changing. Bisceglio’s article describes how social media encourages people who struggle with the idea of death, whether it be themselves with illnesses or others they know of who are dying, to be more open and even proud about the “once forbidden dimension of life.”
Caroline Haythornthwaite in “Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects” discusses the concept of latent social network ties. A latent tie is one that has not been socially activated yet with someone he or she has a weak relationship with even though it is possible. In this case, the users who are affected by death in some way have mostly been turning to Twitter to express their thoughts about death because they found this to be a therapeutic process. As more and more such users of diverse social backgrounds gathered together on Twitter, they discovered themselves connecting with one another, especially connections that never existed before. Therefore, “because such connectivity- by definition- brings together unconnected others, the latent tie structure has to be established by an authority beyond the individuals affected… Internet-based social support sites fit this profile” (Haythornthwaite 137). Because Twitter is a platform that makes it simple for users to share anything in 140 characters, it had and continues to have the potential to create weak ties between disconnected users, in this case the users affected by death, and help them reach out through the “group-wide media.” Even I turn to social media at times to reach out to my online community for advice and even just support.
In addition, in his article “Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline,” Don Slater discusses the concepts of “spatiality” and “disembedding.” He states that
the network organization of new media itself implies a new kind of spatiality which might be separate from yet transformative of offline social organization (Slater 535).
Because death affects people everywhere around the world at some point, such people, especially those who turn to social media to publicize the matter of death, cannot all physically come together at once to bond with one another. Thus, Twitter forms a kind of online spatiality in which users can virtually come together, whether it be for the support, comfort, or attention. One user named Kate Granger mentioned in the article, for instance, states that she tweets about her life with her illness when she starts to feel isolated in the offline world. All she has to do is tweet if anyone is awake, and within a short amount of time, many people, whether it be her followers or just users who came across her tweet, will come to her attention. Nancy Baym in “Personal Connections in the Digital Age” states that it is “also common to find members of online communities and social networks providing one another with the sort of emotional support often found in close relationships” (Baym 82). Online Granger senses a community that consistently follows her life and interacts with her in real-time.
The process of “disembedding,” on the other hand, “could be interpreted as freeing one from the confines of one’s immediate location, empowering participants to connect with anyone from anywhere in the world on the basis of common interests or pleasures” (Slater 536). In this case, the users who are affected by death all share one common topic- death- but they do not have to feel limited by their immediate locations, such as their hospital rooms. Instead, they have the ability to turn to the Internet and cope with the profoundness of such a matter through the use of social media. I believe that social media does have a great and positive impact on those who struggle with the idea of death. On the other hand, I also think that there is a certain limit to how open one can be about death on social media, for instance Scott Simon’s live-tweeting about his mother’s death as mentioned above, only because a case like that becomes really invasive on part of both the user and the audience. Otherwise, I wholeheartedly support the gathering of an online community of users who have something in common and even urge those who are stuck in the offline world to turn to social media.