Online tributes a hollow imitation of genuine grief
As a new recruit to Facebook, I admit I was not exactly on the first-wave of the online social networking phenomena. It’s not that I’m a techo-phobe by any measure (my blackberry is a constant companion).
It’s just that I am not entirely convinced that the addition of a Facebook page will enhance either my work or personal lives. And the thing is, in this job, the two are often inextricably linked. MPs are public figures - albeit very minor ones. And - after sharing weekends, evenings and most waking hours with either my local constituents, my parliamentary colleagues, Industry groups and stakeholders within my shadow portfolio responsibilities - I’d kinda like to keep a little bit of me just for my nearest and dearest.
Call me old fashioned (and I’m sure many of you will) but I prefer to share my personal trials, triumphs and trivia with those I am closest to, rather than the-acquaintance-of-an-acquaintance who I met once at a function and who has now requested to be my “friend”.
Yes, I know I can so “no”, but I can’t quite work out the etiquette in that regard. Besides, it goes very much against the conditioning of many years spent handshaking and networking real-time with real people, which comes with this job.
So it follows that my Facebook page is more work than personal. Please “become my friend” if you want to read the transcript of my latest interview!
And I guess it also follows that I’m experiencing a gnawing “uneasiness” at some of the things we’ve witnessed recently – sisters finding out about the death of their brother on Facebook, tribute pages to two slain children being subject to obscenities and pornography.
The people who would be so cruel and insensitive as to post obscenities on a tribute site are below contempt. They are sick and a sad reminder that there is a small element like that in the community. Clearly, those who operate Facebook have a responsibility to do whatever they can to crack down on this practice.
But I also wonder about the social impulse that results in these tribute pages instantly appearing (in some cases dozens and often established by strangers) - particularly when a tragic and untimely death is made public.
And I wonder what compels thousands of people (also strangers to the deceased) to post their own comments on the tragedy?
Of course, we can’t help but be moved when we read stories like the horrendous deaths of the 12 year old boy in the schoolyard or the 8 year old girl abducted from her home. But what moves us to take to the computer?
When did grief become a public forum? Do the families of those involved really gain a great deal of comfort from the outpouring?
I am sure that advocates of Facebook will assert it’s no different to members of a local community gathering together to mourn someone who, while not well known to them all, is still considered part of the community.
Funerals in small towns are often attended by those who, while not personal friends, pay their respects for the person’s contribution and role in society.
And I’d suggest that most of us, if we found ourselves standing next to a stranger who was grieving the loss of a loved one, would offer a hug or a comforting pat on the back just because we are there and the act of reaching out is utterly instinctual.
Comfort from strangers can remind us of our inter-connectedness as human beings and be a powerful force for good.
Yet there’s still a disconcerting aspect to this “social grieving” trend.
Perhaps it’s because the online “community” is so vast, the numbers so great, and the connections so transient that the outpourings from strangers can begin to lack meaning.
Perhaps it’s because there’s something a little clinical and disconnected about turning to a computer to express what is the rawest of human emotions – grief. Perhaps it’s because mourning is such a deeply personal experience.
Perhaps it’s because it can have unintended consequences - like the sisters who learnt of the death of their brother when they logged on to find that a well-meaning friend had posted an RIP tribute to him just a few hours after he’d passed away in a horrific car accident in the early hours of the morning?
Instead of this person reaching out directly to the family involved, or even to someone they themselves loved, their first instinct was to reach out into cyberspace – and that seems more than a little sad.
I am not suggesting that Facebook is not an innovative and interesting social tool.
Many people love it. And I get that. It keeps them up-to-date with what their friends and family are doing…they can share news, photos, ideas – when they want and how they want. And in this time-poor age, the beauty is it’s a broadcast message. It negates, to a degree, the need for that individual phone call or catch-up.
And maybe that’s what rankles. Simplistically, there’s a “quality vs quantity” aspect to this form of communication. It’s quick and relatively easy to type a message or upload a photo. It takes a bit more time and effort to physically connect with or have a conversation with someone.
But surely someone who’s grieving needs that physical connection most of all?
It also seems more than a little ironic that we have a plethora of laws to protect people’s privacy, yet more and more people appear willing to lay their lives bare on a social networking site. I wonder how many will regret having done so at some point in the future?
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