Home A Life Lived Online: How We Talk About Death on Social Media

A Life Lived Online: How We Talk About Death on Social Media

Death is a part of life, both on and offline. Facebook and MySpace become gathering spaces for the living to mourn their fallen friends. What kind of language do people use to express their grief?

A new study out of the University of California at Irvine’s School of Information and Computer Sciences takes a closer look at the language of bereavement and distress in social media. “Death in social media creates an entirely different kind of experience than we’ve ever really had before,” says Jed Brubaker, a PhD Candidate at the University of California at Irvine. “Traditionally when someone dies, people come together at a certain place, certain time and grieve together – like a cemetery, wake.” What types of language people use to mourn their loved one on social media, in front of other users?

Rather than take an obvious, trendy turn toward Facebook, the study looks at MySpace users, many of whom died young. Using a coding system, the researchers identifies emotionallt distressed content and an analysis of that language, which lays a foundation for natural language processing (NLP) tasks, including automatic detection of bereavement-related distress. The researchers discovered that linguistic style can also indicate messages demonstrating distress in the space of post-mortem social media content.

After a user dies, friends visit the page and express their sadness, shock and grief. Later many return and continue updating and conversing with the user, often times sharing events and feelings as if the person were still alive. It’s kind of like talking with a ghost.

By examining user-generated content, the researchers were able to observe the grieving process in a naturalistic, public setting. What’s more is that this study focuses on “extreme expressions of grief and mourning in SNS following the death of a friend or loved one.” This means more than just a few Twitter-esque RIPs, trending topics and the dead popping up in one’s Facebook friend list. The researchers sought to expand the current knowledge base around the use of language in online grieving, rather than focus on the fact that people do express their grief on social media.

A previous study took a similar linguistic approach, looking at how those in mourning reacted to the deceased on memorialized Facebook profiles. Of the post-mortem Wall posts, they discovered higher rates of negative emotion than previously, when the user was alive. Visiting a deceased user’s profile is seen as both a space for people to mourn and a space of pain. Some return to the profile again and again, continuing to post. Some decide to defriend the dead all together.

What Do You Say To the Dead?

“The stages of grieving the death of a loved one generally consist of shock, denial, anger, mourning and finally, recovery,” explains Dr. Ashwini Nadkarni, co-author of the study “Why Do People Use Facebook?”

In this sense, mourning refers to “the overall process through which an individual comes to acknowledge and accommodate the loss, while acute grief reactions are defined as psychological, behavioral, social, and physical reactions to the perception of that loss,” writes Brubaker & colleagues. As such, comments on the deceased’s MySpace page serve as reminders and manifestations of grief.

“During the earlier stages of grieving, the online presence of the deceased can serve as a powerful visual reminder, enabling friends and relatives to relive the tragedy in a far more vivid fashion than if they had relied on memory alone,” explains Nadkarni.

In our fractured world of social media, mourning can happen simultaneously on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and MySpace. There is no singular space for mourning the death of a loved one. The objective of this mourning process is, however, always the same: “To incorporate the reality of the death into their relationship with, and understanding of, the deceased,” according to Therese A. Rando’s 1993 study, Treatment of Complicated Mourning.

For the data in this study, Brubaker and fellow researchers collected comments from profiles of 1369 deceased MySpace users in April 2010 using the site MyDeathSpace. All people used in the study had been dead for at least three years and lived in the United States.

To identify the language used, researchers developed a codebook of language – and also acknowledged that much of the language used in post-mortem comments is “performative and uses formulaic language.” As such, the researchers discovered two distinct types of language: common funerary sentiments (e.g. “I miss you already…”) and expressions of emotional distress, which did not include memories of the deceased. To further clarify, here are some rules and examples of comments that qualify as emotional distress:

After determining which types of comments qualified as emotional distress, the researchers decided to find and articulate the linguistic style of emotional distress. To analyze sentiment and linguistic style, the researchers used “Language Inquiry Word Count” (LIWC), which provides dictionaries for parts of speech and punctuation, and psychological and social processes. They examined pronounces, conjunctions, negations adverbs and tense use.

“Heightened use of first person pronouns and decreased use of second and third person pronouns have previously been found to relate to depression,” according to previous studies by Pennebaker, Mehl, & Niederhoffer. Use of first person singular pronouns also elevates during emotionally tense times. In a more gendered look at language, a 1988 study found that high use of adverbs and negations indicates a more socially aware, “female” style language. In analyzing expression of sentiment, the researchers looked at the categories of positive emotion (“happy,” “love,” “nice”), sadness (contains words such as “cry,” “sad,” “grief), anger (“hate” and “kill”) and social processes (include “talk,” and social relationships, including “family” and “friend”).

Linguistic Style as a Strong Marker of Emotional Distress

In emotionally distressed comments, the researchers found increased use of first person singular pronouns, past tense verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and negations in addition to a higher word count per comment. These types of comments tended to be angrier in nature, too.

Non-emotionally distressed comments tended to use second-person pronouns, third person singular, plural pronouns and future tense. They also had more social process words and words expressing positive emotion and sadness.

In post-mortem comments, the researchers found slightly different sentiment and linguistic style depending in emotionally distressed comments. Users who write emotionally distressed comments may “spend more time constructing messages and in working through their feelings through writing.” Users who are expressing emotional distressed comments are most likely in a depressed state.

The researchers suggest that using sentiment analysis to detect individuals who are struggling is not exactly the point.

“Post-mortem spaces are sites of social performance in which individuals (distressed or not) utilize highly emotive language, making sentiment analysis alone insufficient.” The researchers do sigguest that comments expressing emotional distress are now more easily identifiable.

What Does It Mean To Be Alive Online? The Death of Queer Artist Mark Aguhar

Just yesterday, Chicago-based queer artist Mark Aguhar died. She/their (the artist preferred to go by gender neutral pronouns) was known in queer Internet circles for their Tumblr blog, Call Out Queen, an intensely honest and evocative look at cultural norms of race, class and gender from the perspective of a self-identified genderqueer person of color fat femme fag feminist who wasn’t afraid to speak their mind.

“If you don’t know Aguhar but are on Tumblr, chances are you have seen their work,” writes Simon Thubault, a Halifax-based journalist, blogger and producer. “Mark preferred the use of the pronoun “they” to convey their gender identity. It was the manifestation of that gender identity that drew me to Mark. Here was someone who was unafraid to express themselves in the way that spoke to their experience. Mark did not seek to express or explain the lives of people who lived outside the gender binary.”

Tumblr has been overflowing with notes to Mark Aguhar, and many are from people who didn’t know them but are still moved by their work.

From Mark’s website:

My work is about visibility. My work is about the fact that I’m a genderqueer person of color fat femme fag feminist and I don’t really know what to do with that identity in this world.

It’s that thing where you grew up learning to hate every aspect of yourself and unlearning all that misery is really hard to do.

It’s that thing where you kind of regret everything you’ve ever done because it’s so complicit with white hegemony.

It’s that thing where you realize that your own attempts at passive aggressive manipulation and power don’t stand a chance against the structural forms of DOMINATION against your body.

It’s that thing where the only way to cope with the reality of your situation is to pretend it doesn’t exist; because flippancy is a privilege you don’t own but you’re going to pretend you do anyway.

Mark’s death has left Tumblr users wondering, mourning and confused. Many did not know Mark personally, but they knew their work.

“Death presents an interesting case study,” says Brubaker. “What does it mean to be online and express our lives?”

To this he adds: “It also leaves us wondering, what does it mean to be alive?”

Images via Shutterstock, Tumblr and MarkAguhar.com.

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