Twitter Is Changing the Way People Mourn

A woman looks at her phone, sadly.
(Image credit: lzf/

SEATTLE — Traditionally, mourning the dead has been a private affair, held behind closed doors and among loved ones, at least in most Western cultures. But social media sites are starting to transform the act of grieving into a more public activity, new research finds.

Twitter, in particular, is widening the conversation surrounding death and mourning because anyone can see and respond to any tweet posted on the site, the sociologists said in their new research. Facebook is also making death and mourning more visible, although posts on that site are usually visible only to friends and family, the researchers said.

The unpublished research, presented Saturday (Aug. 20) here at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting, is helping scientists understand how people use online social spaces to mourn, said study co-researcher Nina Cesare, a doctoral student of sociology at the University of Washington (UW). [After Death: 8 Burial Alternatives That Are Going Mainstream]

"It's bringing strangers together in this space to share common concerns and open up conversations about death in a way that is really unique," Cesare said in a statement.

In the new study, Cesare and her co-author Jennifer Branstad, also a doctoral candidate of sociology at UW, looked at the social media feeds of deceased Twitter users. To find Twitter accounts of deceased people, the researchers used, a site that links social media pages to online obituaries. Although most of the 21,000 obituaries they went through were linked to private Facebook or MySpace profiles, they found 37 people with Twitter accounts.

While reading through these Twitter accounts, the researchers found that, in many cases, other Twitter users acknowledged these deaths whether or not they knew the person personally. For instance, sometimes strangers tweeted about a deceased person to draw awareness to a social issue, such as mental illness or suicide, the researchers found. The average age of these deceased Twitter users was 29, and the most common causes of death among them were suicide, vehicle accidents and shootings, the researchers found. People took to Twitter "to discuss, debate and even canonize or condemn" these deaths, the researchers said.

Some people used Twitter to share memories and maintain a bond with the deceased, such as saying, "I miss cheering you on the field," the researchers said. Others tweeted intimate messages, including, "I love and miss you so much," while others shared thoughts, saying, "So sad reading the tweets of the girl who was killed."

People also used Twitter to reflect on life and mortality: "Goes to show you can be here one moment and gone the next," one user said.

However, Twitter is also filled with judgmental comments, even about deceased people. For instance, one user said, "Being a responsible gun owner requires some common sense — something that this dude didn't have!"

In addition, the researchers found that some deceased people are now achieving "post-death fame," Cesare told Live Science. Sometimes, users — even strangers — held lengthy discussions about a person's life, death and the significance of both, she said. In one discussion about the murder of a girl, users commented on how sad it made them, and how they wanted to increase public safety for youth. [10 Technologies That Will Transform Your Life]

But no matter what was said, the posts were usually pithy instead of soul baring, as users are limited to 140 characters per tweet, the researchers said. Because of this, the atmosphere on Twitter is less personal than on other social media sites such as Facebook, and appears to embolden and engage people to discuss deaths even if they didn't know the person.

"A Facebook memorial post about someone who died is more like sitting in that person's house and talking with their family, sharing your grief in that inner circle," Branstad said in the statement. "What we think is happening on Twitter is, people who wouldn't be in that house, who wouldn't be in that inner circle, getting to comment and talk about that person. That space didn't really exist before, at least not publicly."

Still, as with any new forum, some people are testing its boundaries, whereas others may not feel comfortable mourning on such a public site.

"This is a new phenomenon, and people are trying to figure out what is acceptable and unacceptable to say about death" on social media sites, Cesare told Live Science. For instance, Twitter may now be viewed as an acceptable forum to mourn and discuss death, but other platforms, such as Snapchat, might not be there yet, she said.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.