Social Networks and Death

Cris (in the middle)

Now that I have hundreds of social media friends I try to keep up with every day, I’ve noticed that my view of the world is changing. A while ago three people in my network had someone close to them die unexpectedly in one week. Just today, two people I follow know someone who died. It freaks me out. Sometimes it seems as if people are dropping like flies. And then I remind myself that I just “know” a lot more people than I used to. The statistical death rate hasn’t increased, but my perception of it has.

I’m not sure if my new world view is more accurate than my old world view, but it feels more real. When flu season hit, I knew it. When there was a scary explosion in New York, I knew it. And I knew these things in a way that seemed much more personal than reading about them on Google News or

I remember having a similar feeling during the beginning of the Iraq war when I was reading the “Where is Raed” blog. It was a personal window into a situation that in the past I would have only heard about in the news. But now there are hundreds of “Raeds” pushing their perspective to me in 140 character bursts.

I wonder what the effects of this new, more “real” reality will be. And I wonder whether they will be lasting. Will people react more to catastrophes when they read about them from their online friends? Will I adopt a more live-for-the-moment attitude when I’m reminded so frequently that death lurks everywhere?

[Update October 4, 2010: Reissued in honor of my dear high school friend Cris Wittress who died suddenly a few weeks ago. We had lost track of each other and had just reconnected a bit. Before Facebook, I probably wouldn’t have even heard that she died. I’m glad that because of Facebook I have the opportunity to remember her with other old friends.]

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8 Responses to Social Networks and Death

  1. Adrian says:

    I can completely relate to this post. Twitter has drastically changed my life. I know so many more people, or at least feel like I know them because we share something common in Twitter. When people are very sick, or something upsetting has happened to them and they talk about it on Twitter it almost feels like it has affected you personally.

  2. Leigh Ann says:

    This was such an interesting blog post. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but, after being on Twitter for only two weeks (@FamilyDoctorMag), I totally understand what you mean. With the world so big and so interconnected now, it is really neat to be able to share mass experiences (like what’s going on in politics right now) with others on a more personal level. You get hints about other people’s thoughts. Such short, real-time posts are so … real. It’s hard to articulate. You did so very effectively.

  3. Temple Stark says:

    It has changed, but not quite in that way. I feel death pretty strongly anyway, perhaps because no one truly close to me has died, so it always feels raw.

    I do get a sharp pang in my throat – somewhere – when I read of death on Twitter however, because it’s generally a very positive and funny place, with bursts of exasperation.

    Primarily, Twitter has been a learning agent for me as well as one to test my patience. For instance I dislike intensely when someone posts five or six times about the same thing hour after hour. There’s self-promotion and then there’s going too far. I “unfollowed” a certain podcast author for this very reason.

  4. Kevin Montgomery says:

    I read an interesting quote yesterday that goes:
    “Public speaking is the art of diluting a two-minute idea with a two-hour vocabulary.”
    Evan Esar (1899 – 1995)

    I love how Twitter turns this concept around—forcing a simple idea to remain simple and clear.

    Twitter has given us the ability to keep up with complex ideas and events, such as death, and its immediate and resonating effects, without any “overhead”. It’s made it so much easier to be involved with people at an intimate, community level.

  5. Fred says:

    My wife rolls her eyes anytime I start a sentence with “I read on Twitter that…” There have been several occasions where she has read me something from the newspaper (yeah, I know) and I have responded with, “Yes, my Twitter friends told me yesterday, but I didn’t think you’d care!” Seeing snapshots of people’s daily lives, comments, and opinions has definitely improved my view of the world. Yes, you do experience death vicariously more often than you did before, but there are happy times too.

  6. Twitter and my blog have completely changed the way I communicate with my husband. We use it to keep up with each other during the day. I used to call most of my friends every couple weeks to get together. Now, I’m watching the play-by-play on their vacation thanks to twitpic. I’ve “met” a ton of new people and I’ve really invested in people I used to consider acquaintances or “friends of friends”. The only downside is that is does create distance between me and those who aren’t in the Twittersphere or the blogosphere. Those relationships seem to take more effort and it’s harder to motivate myself to pick up the phone and call. I think that’s kinda weird.

  7. admin says:

    Interesting points, everyone!

    I also feel closer to people I can follow on Twitter and Facebook. I feel closer to some old friends who are using these tools, and it feels harder to keep up with those who don’t.

    And yet, I still vigorously agreed with Stever’s new post for the Get-It-Done Guy, which we jokingly titled “Call Your Friends.” I’m not a phone person; I don’t like calling people, but I notice that I have better business relationships with people who call every once in a while instead of e-mailing every time, and I’m usually glad when friends or relatives call.

  8. There are also virtual mortuaries, of sorts, online, such as MyDeathSpace, etc. that catalog the passing of those in social networks.

    On one level, morbid, sure.

    On another level, a stark reminder to enjoy every day.

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