A nation pays attention when a soldier dies

Planning & managing digital death; photo credit Thomas Edmondston-Low

Photo credit: Thomas Edmondston-Low

When news of my brother’s death was broken to my family in late October 2012, I was startled by the warmth and outpouring of sympathy across the UK that my parents and I received, as well as by the respects paid to my brother and the Lance Corporal who died alongside him. Handwritten notes by the thousands came to us through our letterbox extending condolences to our family. We received flowers from strangers.

Then there was the show of solidarity that prompted us to break down as we considered the large numbers of people who travelled from across the UK to honour two men they did not know and had never met.

I’d seen images on TV showing the crowds who turned up to pay their respects to dead British soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq as they were repatriated. These pictures do not do justice to the scale of public attendance.

As we were driven to join the throngs of people gathered at Carterton where we would eventually meet DB — as he was known to many — and his colleague, men and women lined up outside their houses on the road leading to the town centre where the main crowd was congregated.

I remember one senior gentleman in particular supporting himself with two sticks, one in each hand, standing on a verge by the side of the road. He was dressed in his military regalia with an earth green beret and stood motionless with his head bowed as he noticed our car approaching from a distance till long after we passed him.

We received a similar reception as we arrived at DB’s funeral. Travelling through the ordinarily pedestrianised precinct in the centre of a Cathedral town, people stood aside, bowed their heads or saluted DB in his coffin. A friend and soldier colleague of DB who attended the service came to find me afterwards telling me that a veteran had stopped her in the street, giving her fifty pounds and asking her to give it to the family or a cause nominated for donations. It was a gift given anonymously and without requiring thanks. It was truly humbling.

As for many other families who know someone who has served or is serving in a military campaign, there’s an undercurrent of anxiety that builds as the date of deployment grows closer.

This unease made me increasingly sensitive to the politics and events around what was happening in Afghanistan, particularly throughout 2012.

The escalation of green on blue attacks that accounted for less than 1% of coalition deaths in 2008 grew in intensity to 15% by 2012, more than twice the percentage compared to the year before. Public support in the UK for British forces involvement that started faltering approximately five weeks into the conflict was reported as collapsing. DB and others I spoke to, at least on the face of it, seemed unperturbed by the insider danger or of serving in an unpopular war. They had a job to do.

As news and analysis about the fatalities and the correlated public response to British presence in Afghanistan was reported, I equated lack of support for the war with lack of support for our troops. I could not have been more wrong.

Recently I learned that the repatriation of soldiers killed overseas only became common practice in the UK from 1982. The marking of their return at Wootton Bassett was a modern tradition started in 2007 when local community members came to pay their respects by the road as repatriated soldiers in their hearses were diverted through their village due to a temporary change in route.

This simple gesture tapped into wider public sentiment and attendance grew, first organically then exponentially as the custom hit the spotlight both nationally and internationally. From September 2012, this custom moved to Carterton.

The establishment of the public repatriation has of course had growing pains and attracted its share of political cynicism. Some have argued that the custom has allowed the military to re-engage with the public after the negative response to the British role in Iraq and increase support for British presence in Afghanistan. Others have suggested that the military has allowed emotion and sentimentality to enter the public debate around the nation’s role in conflict; that the funeral cortege with its display of the Union Jack and the laying of flowers on hearses as they pause then pass, encourages voyeurism.

Despite these background and foreground discussions, people for the most part have attended repatriations in Wootton Bassett and Carterton or sent messages in absentia primarily to honour and pay respects to those who have died.

The centenary marking the start of World War I and the seventieth anniversary of the D Day Landings commemorating those who fought for us have been in recent thoughts. Our family knows it is unlikely that DB and others like him, deployed to Afghanistan, will be remembered in the public consciousness in the same manner.

The marking of DB’s repatriation showed us however that despite the public unease towards the war that he died in, there’s still respect for troops and that they serve. For our family, this simple, solemn act of community acknowledgement has provided tremendous comfort and support, both then and now. We thank you for it.

 

Social media etiquette around death – what’s appropriate?

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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.

What happens to a Facebook profile when someone dies?

A few years back, Facebook introduced a feature in which you can memorialise the Facebook profile of someone who has died. In brief, this means that once a death certificate or similar evidence is provided to the social networking site, the profile of the deceased effectively becomes inactive yet remains visible to their network. The person’s account can no longer be accessed, so new friends cannot be accepted; their friendship network remains as it was, just before they died.

Automated updates such as the person’s birthday, likes or recommendations are completely switched off, so Facebook friends and friends of friends will not receive “say Happy Birthday” or “do you know?” updates from the person who has died.

I understand why some of the memorialisation features were introduced and why. Privacy for the account holder is a key consideration and understandably so. All the same, our recent experience of losing a family member shows that for various reasons, these features are not always beneficial to the deceased or grieving family and friends. And in some cases, they do not go far enough.

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HOW WE INTERACT IS DIFFERENT WHEN ONLINE & WHEN WE’RE WITH SOMEONE

After my brother’s funeral last year, our family held drinks with friends and colleagues to share stories about him in one of his old pub haunts. At one point, after many toasts had been made and stories shared, I found myself sitting at a table with five other women who all turned out to be his ex-girlfriends.

The conversation was menacingly polite until one of the group started to draw comparisons between herself and another, noting how similar she thought they were. The other disagreed and suddenly, the conversation livened up. There was some fairly vocal discussion as others joined in and compared opinions. The situation felt awkward, while civilised. I wanted to disappear and eavesdrop from a safe distance but I didn’t; it was such an extraordinary situation.

This gathering initially seemed so unlikely. It made sense after thinking it through. In a room full of disparate friendship groups and cliques, these women gravitated towards each other because they shared a common experience; each sharing a part of my brother’s life.

The idea of former flames converging in one place is enough to set most pulses racing. This situation is not one my brother could have easily endured if he were alive. You could feel a palpable sense of relief (mixed with disappointment) from others in the room when the group disbanded.Communities_memories_digital afterlife

In our day-to-day lives, we compartmentalise and in turn, group ourselves with others depending on how we relate to them or share common interests. Where we have different interests and groups of friends, we also tend to communicate with them separately and in multiple ways. And in stark contrast to the previously mentioned scene, we very often avoid mixing friends or acquaintances where we anticipate conflict, awkwardness, lack of commonality or differences in personality or ideology.

In our digital spaces, we do not take this multi-faceted approach to communicating. We mostly take a one approach fits all when sharing news with our networks, largely because it’s convenient. On spaces such as Facebook, you can separate groups of friends but few bother to put the effort in to maintain them. Even if you do, the platform just doesn’t accommodate the degrees of nuance of our in-person social interactions.

Similarly, when we communicate via other social platforms such as Twitter, FourSquare or Pinterest, we broadcast to all our connections, whether or not it is relevant to everyone who is connected with us. We curate and self-censor to what we feel comfortable sharing across our multi-faceted friendship groups, then monitor, moderate and occasionally censor what people post in return.

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ISSUES WITH MEMORIALISATION

When Facebook receives a notice to memorialise, the profile of the deceased user becomes inactive and it has no one actively managing the account anymore. If no one has access to managing the Facebook account of the person who has died, no one is able to continue curating the ongoing dialogue around his/her life and death. There is no one to manage the public messages that are sent within the wider network, posted on the deceased’s profile wall.

This requires the co-operation of all friends of that person to communicate in a way that is respectful – not only to the memory of their friend and in a way that he or she would have appreciated, but also in a manner that respects the feelings and boundaries of others in his or her network. Our recent experience shows this doesn’t always happen.

Perhaps this is because the impersonal nature of posting on a wall means it is easier to forget (or never know) who is in the audience. After all, an in-person discussion more often than not, starts with an introduction and an awareness that someone else is part of the conversation.

My brother’s death, as is often the case with military deaths, was reported widely in the media. There were cases of people trying to attach and position themselves to the publicity, magnifying their relationship with him, sometimes speaking for him. Such actions, a friend pointed out, are what’s known as grief tourism.

Friends and family objected to some of the photos and private as well as public messages that certain friends posted on his wall and across his network. When it happened, we had to intervene behind the scenes and encourage more sensitive behaviour.

It’s not possible to change the security levels around the profile once memorialised either, which means that there’s no way to approve comments to the wall or timeline if maximum security settings were established. And where security settings are overly liberal, a laissez-faire wall risks causing distress to family and friends, just as their grief is most sensitive.

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There is the option of setting up a Facebook page to counter some of the issues I’ve mentioned here. This is a commonly taken approach which I’ve seen happen within my own network when family members or friends have set up a memorial page for someone who has died. They’ve done this in part to provide a platform for the community grieving process as well as to bring together photos and past memories so they can see memories they may not have been part of before. This is what Facebook recommends and it is a great opportunity if you want to increase the profile of the person who has died. For instance, it can support a desire to honour them publicly, build awareness around a related cause or conduct fundraising in their name.

On the other hand, it can also mean that relatives and close friends have multiple destinations to monitor, moderate or remember that person by. When setting up a separate page, they may not have access to the deceased’s network to encourage people to follow a new memorial destination. The open nature of a page also means that it’s difficult to limit a page to friends, family and acquaintances if the goal is for more private reflection; it can lead to a situation that’s wrought with issues if the death has been in the public eye.

Understanding that privacy — for the deceased as well as those they have privately communicated with — needs to be respected, there must surely be a compromise. For instance, offering the option for Facebook users to pass account management to the next of kin or nominated person in the event of their death, so that their chosen representative can moderate community discussions, protect the public legacy of the deceased as well as monitor security settings.

This type of external control could co-exist with existing memorialisation features such as restricting access to features such as Facebook messages while dis-allowing new friendship connections, birthday reminders or other types of profile recommendations. A nomination process would offer greater protection for the interests of the deceased as well as greater recourse for the community in the event that mediation is required.

NEXT UP: MANAGING A COMMUNITY ON FACEBOOK OF SOMEONE WHO HAS DIED + CONSIDERING FACEBOOK IN ESTATE PLANNING

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