Social media etiquette around death – what’s appropriate?

social media_etiquette_death_digitalafterlife

Every day we are instinctively governed by social and community norms, whether or not we are conscious of it. We are generally considerate towards our elders for example or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when we want to acknowledge others’ actions.

Social conventions change of course according to the groups we’re with as well as the times we live in. Each new medium and context brings new emergent norms, often with positive results – letter writing and telephone manners come to mind. Sometimes though the results are less positive – consider the way people can change when behind the wheel.

When it comes to online behaviour, what rules are we governed by? Should the etiquette that we apply in our day to day lives extend to our digital behaviour? Some aspects of social media etiquette are unclear, and it’s time we talked about convention.

A story about a social media faux pas

Towards the end of last year, at 5 AM in the morning Sydney time, I received news of my brother’s death. My folks, back in the UK, had been frantically trying to phone me for hours as I was sleeping. Given the early hour and my phone being on silent, it was only when I woke up co-incidentally, checking my phone for the time and noticing the multiple missed messages from home, that I returned their calls and found out that he had been killed in action.

When this happens to a UK soldier, the military powers that be impose a communications blackout at the location of the incident, to prevent news of the death being leaked by fellow soldiers on the ground, who otherwise have open lines of communication with family and friends.

This order allows the military to communicate the death of a loved one with the utmost respect. It is unfortunately, a well rehearsed and established process. The next of kin is informed first, who is in turn given time to break the news to extended family and close friends prior to any media intrusion or an unexpected broadcast of the incident. Nobody wants to learn of a loved one’s death on the evening news.

At the time, my parents and the Army Visiting Officer assigned to our family told me that they were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to get hold of me before the end of this curfew. As it turns out, we were in touch relatively quickly. However, it wasn’t the media outlets that announced the news first – it was posted to Facebook. We still had several hours remaining on the curfew.

social media_etiquette_death_digitalafterlifeNews of my brother’s death was broken in a two line update by one of his early informed friends via one of his Facebook pages less than three hours after I was told what had happened. Once out, the word disseminated through his online networks within minutes.

My brother’s friends in Australia and Japan woke up to the news over breakfast and given it was still early morning in both countries, we hadn’t had the chance of breaking the news to those closest to him. While his best friends had valiantly tried to inform everyone personally in the UK before the communications blackout and media deadline ended, their attempts were thwarted by the announcement on social. The job had been done for us.

Admittedly, I was angry back then that news of my brother’s death was broken in this way. Of course, there were other things to focus on. I also wondered if the immediate shock and grief was making me irrational.

Over a year on though, I’m still angry about what happened. Perhaps more so. It’s definitely up there with the “whodunnit” scenarios that were running through my mind in the lead up to my brother’s inquest. And I’m not entirely sure why.

Perhaps it was the casual use of multiple exclamation marks to report his demise or the fact that the news was broken by someone who, as far as I am aware, did not attend any of the numerous memorial or funeral services held for him.

There weren’t any messages of condolence sent by him to my brother’s closest family or friends either.

Maybe it was because someone took it upon themselves to communicate an event that was to have such a significant impact on the lives of close family and friends, in such a cavalier way. We wanted to inform people in a less brutal, more respectful fashion – in person. That ability was taken from us.

A rational view of the situation

The thing that strikes me about this story is that although I’m mad about what happened, I can understand how it did. The person at the centre of the story likely remains ignorant of how their action jarred some in my brother’s network. They may even have thought that they were being appropriate and genuine.

There are no general accepted guidelines on social etiquette in the digital space. I don’t remember ever hearing a conversation about online conduct or manners although fortunately there is increasing commentary about unacceptable behaviours such as bullying or trolling.

What’s more, because social is such an all-consuming presence in our lives influencing our communications around all major life milestones, we’re no longer sure if we should be following so-called traditional conventions. Last week for instance, a work colleague told me that he asked someone for the address of a mutual friend who had died quite suddenly so that he could send a letter of condolence. Instead, he was directed to a Facebook memorial page. We’re at a stage where we’re creating new customs. It’s very confusing.

So what’s appropriate?

I’ve talked previously about how the impersonal nature of posting on a wall means it is easier to forget (or never know) who is in the audience. While an in-person discussion more often than not, starts with an introduction we tend to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach when sharing news with our online networks.

While we’re still working out our online social etiquette, common sense and consideration towards others is a good thing to think about, especially when news can spread so contagiously through friends once released. Any action, regardless of its intention, can spread across networks in seconds. You never know who is going to end up reading what you post. I’d strongly suggest looking from the perspective of your audience. If you don’t want to offend, how are others in either your network or related networks likely to look upon your updates?

More specifically though, my view is that you shouldn’t reveal life impacting news such as engagement or wedding announcements, deaths, illnesses or impending child arrivals on a public forum unless it is your news to share; or alternatively, you have been nominated to share the news by the person(s) it directly involves or affects.

For a start, it’s not your news to distribute.  It may also cause complications if those directly involved haven’t told other close friends or family first.  While breaking a story you’ve become privy to may provide a temporary thrill by making you appear ‘first to know’ and putting you at the heart of the social action for a few hours, it’s more classy and sensitive to hold back.

Thinking longer term though, will acceptable norms organically emerge, or will intervention be required at some point?

If you consider how we’ve learnt what’s acceptable conduct to this point, it’s via social situations. As young children, we’re told to ‘shush’ in environments in which we’re supposed to be respectful. As we get older, we learn appropriate phrases or patterns of behaviour by witnessing others do it first hand or being guided through mimicry. We’re asked (told!) to say please, thank you, to share, and to include.

Parents are currently trying to keep up with their kids, such has been the pace of change in this last decade. We’re all still learning to navigate this new world of public networks and connections with each other. In the same way that governments and education bodies are encouraging the education of both parents and children about the very real safety threats in online worlds, I’ve no doubt that in the not so distant future, we’ll be providing lessons and workshops in schools and community groups about how to interact responsibly with others on social media.

It will take time but social media etiquette is in its infancy because social media as a communications tool is very young. Establishing broadly accepted ritual and conventions takes time.

What are your thoughts? Ideas? As ever, feel free to share.


  1. Annie Whitlocke says:

    I placed myself in your situation Emily, how would I feel if the news of a loved member of my family’s death was posted on Facebook, before I knew about it. Many mixed emotions arose. But the one that seems to ‘stick’ for me is the motivation of the person who posted the information. If I felt anger at not being told before the rest of the world, what was the difference in learning after many other people knew about it…? The death would hurt and cause suffering either way, why would family be considered before friends ? I have friends that are so close to me, in fact closer than some members of my own family. My conclusion was that it’s not a race (perhaps not the best word to use) to see who gets the sad news first, family or friends, but that it is received and given in respect. I can only hope that the Facebook posting was respectful. In these times of high tech it is impossible to control the social media, so to me that means it would be pointless to become angry when the pain of the loss was already so great. I am looking forward to reading the postings, thanks Emily.

    • Annie – thanks so much for your comment. I agree, I have spent much time thinking about the motivation of the poster and my mine in my reaction. I believe my own anger was because we didn’t have a chance to let my brother’s friends know in person, but in my mind also, I also think the way in which the news was broken was too glib! That said…as you say… given the nature of social media, the way in which we break this type of news is changing. Fortunately, I did learn about DBS’s death before it broke on social. Would I have been angry? Probably later. But I think the overwhelming emotion would have been shock. I’m of a generation where death of a close one is communicated in person and DBS was too. FB is for light hearted updates over morning coffee so the use of social media in this way is a cultural shift in many ways. Thanks again for your comment and for reading my post. Emily

      • Hi Emily
        And, thanks for your quick response.
        Actually I have to say my Facebook is not for light comments. I am a funeral celebrant, Buddhist/Spiritual Pastoral Carer and Death Café facilitator. So my Facebook is full of spectacular things that are so related to the groups I join. I also belong to the natural death moment and green burial movement, just wish I could read all the awesome things that are happening.
        But, facebook can certainly be full of useless comments of what people ate for breakfast and pointless selfies.
        Cheers Annie

      • I should have said that for me, FB is for light hearted updates from friends and family over morning coffee. Social is going to have different meanings/purposes for each individual, as I think this conversation shows, so again another complexity in the etiquette and cultural shift discussion. Thx again for the comment, I think we must be in the same time zone. I’d actually love to know more about Death Cafe so if there are any links/resources you could share, it would be appreciated!

      • Check out and there are lots of resource ideas within that site. Perhaps you would like to more about ACP (Advanced Care Planning) so check out
        Some people mistakenly think it’s about estate and basic last wishes, But it’s much more, it’s about what you don’t want or do want if you are unable to speak or act for yourself. Consider if you are in a terrible accident and on life support and prognosis is not good. How long would you want to stay on it for, would you agree to life prolonging medication or intravenous liquid and food? And it’s not just when you are old, as you have learnt already. An ACP saves family and friends much stress as everything is clear for them and they are not forced to make difficult decisions that could impact on other family members.
        A fantastic book by Katy Butler explains it so well from her own experience with her two parents. Knocking on Heavens’ Door.

  2. Cathy Arnett says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. I found your blog and had been debating about whether to share my Moms obituary on Facebook . I’m the only surviving child. I am very sensitive to other people’s reactions …. and even though your post is 3 years old now, I am sure that people who seem to post everything from the meals they eat out to the young Mother who posts pics of her baby, we all must think about our audience before posting. It is very jarring and upsetting to lose any family member suddenly . Someone I know posted a relatives death before I did; I know that social media needs to self police or we need to be more aware of how we announce anything jarring on FB … again, so sorry for your loss.

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