Social media etiquette & talking about death – what do you think?

social-media-etiquette-death

Credit: KROMKRATHOG at freedigitalphotos.net

At Away For A Bit, we want to know what your view is when it comes to social media etiquette and how we talk about death. What’s your response when you see the news of a friend’s death posted on a Facebook wall? How do you send condolences these days?

Please share your opinions in this very short survey. It will take a couple of minutes and all individual responses will be treated confidentially. We’ll be sharing group feedback from this survey shortly and report back on what you think.

Many thanks for participating. We appreciate your time. Have your say in this survey.

Social media etiquette & talking about death – what do you think?

social-media-etiquette-death

Credit: KROMKRATHOG at freedigitalphotos.net

At Away For A Bit, we want to know what your view is when it comes to social media etiquette and how we talk about death. What’s your response when you see the news of a friend’s death posted on a Facebook wall? How do you send condolences these days?

Please share your opinions in this very short survey. It will take a couple of minutes and all individual responses will be treated confidentially. We’ll be sharing group feedback from this survey shortly and report back on what you think.

Many thanks for participating. We appreciate your time. Have your say in this survey.

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.

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