The social media landscape is always changing. Facebook gets a new look every day, and new platforms threaten the dominance of the big four (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube).
Much like the platforms, the uses for social media are always evolving. Long gone are the days when Facebook was just used to connect with friends. Now, Facebook is used for everything from lead generation to customer service to gaming.
One trend that I’ve noticed lately is that of social grieving. We saw it with Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs and, most recently, Whitney Houston. When news breaks of a noteworthy death or tragedy, our first instinct is to grab our smartphones and head straight to social media.
Why Social Media?
When we experience grief or injustice, many of us venture beyond our traditional support system of friends and family to seek out others with similar feelings. This is not a new phenomenon; but what is new is the opportunity to connect with others and share our emotions online. For many, simply sending a tweet or updating a Facebook status may help the grief to subside and the healing process to begin.
The idea of grieving in such a social setting may cause discomfort for some, who believe that mourning requires a sense of solemnity that social media can’t accommodate. But anyone online the day that Michael Jackson died knows that there are tens of millions of Americans who feel otherwise.
With celebrities, social media usage goes beyond expressing grief. It gives us a chance to thank them for how they’ve shaped our lives — how you can’t hear “Billie Jean” without attempting the Moonwalk, or see the Apple symbol without remembering your first computer, or hear “I Will Always Love You” without automatically reaching for the Kleenex.
After the deaths of Jobs and Houston, tweeps used Twitter hashtags as a way to pay their final respects. #ThankYouSteve was used to give people a chance to reflect on how Steve Jobs and Apple changed their lives. #DearWhitney allowed fans to “talk” to Houston about the lasting impact of her music.
Many obituaries posted online also offer the opportunities for mourners to sign the virtual guestbook. Like the hashtags, this feature allows us to record our memories online and connect with others who are also mourning, even for non-celebrities.
Case Study: Trayvon Martin
Since Trayvon Martin’s death on February 26, #hoodies, #wewantjustice and #Trayvon have found their place on the list of Twitter’s trending topics. Millions of tweets have included “Trayvon Martin.” Thousands of photos of mourners in hoodies have been uploaded to social media. Countless Facebook groups seeking justice for Trayvon have been created.
Think back for a moment to the 1992 verdict in the Rodney King trial. Protestors took to the streets to express their outrage, and Los Angeles soon was overcome by rioting and looting.
It’s seems like a stretch to argue that we could have avoided the 1992 riots if we’d had access to Facebook and Twitter. But isn’t it possible that at least some individuals would have chosen to stay home and vent their frustration online?
In this digital age, rather than taking to the streets in mourning or protest, people are taking to the Web. This is a more peaceful version of the same protest, but no less effective.
Somehow, social media provides mourners with a cathartic experience. Reading other people’s Tweets or Facebook posts seems to make it easier to work through these times of grief. Connecting with others who are experiencing the same thing can help the mourning process, bringing about closure and peace.
An online community, while slightly unorthodox, is a community nonetheless, and for many, it is one that provides the support and comfort that they seek in a difficult time.
As social media continues to grow and evolve, we’ll likely begin seeing it used in a number of different and unexpected ways. Social grieving may be just the beginning.