11 Life, Death and Everyday Experience of Social Media (1/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

Anita Greenhill and Gordon Fletcher
11 Life, Death and Everyday Experience of
Social Media
1 Introduction
Much attention has been given to the development of social media and its rela-
tionship to our everyday experiences (e. g., Galloway 2004). The application of
the traditional notion of a face-to-face friend is regularly questioned in critical
literature discussing social media use and social networking (Ellison et al. 2007;
Tong et al. 2008), and studies have also indicated that at least younger genera-
tions have the ability to work with multiple media simultaneously, which makes
social media an increasingly central aspect of their daily experience (Thomas
2007; Ware 2008).
The complexities and intricacies of social networking are exemplified and
emphasised by those social networks that have explicitly formed around mourn-
ing, the remembrance of life and unfortunate death. However, while these spe-
cial interest social networks are the most vi sible and easiest to observe in the
context of cultural rituals concerning death, all of the most popular social net-
works (including, for example, Facebook and Bebo) have been use d as sites
for the conduct of these rituals (Carroll and Landry 2010; McCrudy 2010; Fearon
2011). This chapter is an interpretative and observational examination of gone-
toosoon.org a website that encourages family and friends, as well as complete
strangers, to create memorials, befriend others who have created memorials and
to leave digital tributes. We have utilised gonetoosoon.org as the basis for anal-
ysis as a representative harbinger of digitally based activities for contemporary
mourning rituals. Reime rs (1999: 147) emphasises that an aspect of rituals,
and especially of rites de passage, is that they unite participants [] with each
other. This observation is made in the context of death and mourning, but it
could equally define the pivotal purpose of social networks more generally
and is a preliminary rationale for the close association of spec ific actions,
such as social network participation, with cultural practices, including mourn-
ing. Myerhoff foreshadows the advent of digitally based mourning by arguing
that the unifying aspects of ritual also create an association with situations
and collectives beyond themselves, such as relatives at other places, ancestors,
and rising generations (Myerhoff 1984: 306). Taken together, Reimers and
Myerhoffs two statements effectively define the raison detre for gonetoosoo-
In this chapter, we introduce the concept of thananetworking. This term is
consciously applied in order to dually recognise that the practices being descri-
bed are a subset of social networking more generally as well as that these prac-
tices have a relation with dark tourism or thanatourism (Seaton 1996; Slade
2003; Stone 2005). By exploring thanatourism and thanane tworking practices,
we see the persistence of an ongoing human desire to understand and rational-
ise death. Thanatourism most commonly cites Jim Morrisons graveyard in Paris
and Elvis Presleys Graceland as two examples of tourist activity that has been
built around the early, untimely deaths of these performers (Ryan and Kohil
2006; Stone and Sharpley 2008). The human (living) ordering and respect for
death provided by graveyards constructs a defined venue for entertainment
(Rugg 2000: 264). The activities and actions associated with visiting these venues
form the basis for thanatourism shifting and expanding the concept of pilgrim-
age to a form of entertainment, a cultural practice that extends beyond religious
observance and an action that assists in defining a place. Thananetworking has
evolved from the opposite direction to a similar observable outcome adapt-
ing the ostensibly entertainment-focussed medium of social networking to the
purpose of pilgrimage and, significantly, taking the ordering principle of memo-
rialising conventionally found in graveyards into a different domain. Looking at
thananetworking is an examination of mourning pr actices found within digital
environments. These are observable in all social media networks as well as in
specialised sites, including the site of our focus, gonetoosoon.org.
2 Belief and ritual
Story-telling interlocks with other practices as a mechanism for the reinforce-
ment of prevalent and dominant cultural understandings. Stories provide refer-
ence to a plethora of common contemporary operations and experiences that en-
sure an integrated belief system. The belief in some form of continuity of
existence after death amongst most widespread mainstream religions is equated
with the survival and perpetuation of a conscious soul after death (Levene 2009).
GoneTooS oon and other online memorials are not challenging the nuclear core of
traditional beliefs, but rather are appending and expanding on ancillary beliefs;
this is simplistically evidenced, for example, by the extended use of angelic im-
agery and ASCII art on GoneTooSoon. For the majority of memorials on GoneToo-
Soon, the relationship is to a core set of Christian beliefs that are clearly evident
and shaped by the technical capabilities of the site itself, which would make the
construction of any non-Christian memorial potentially problematic.
Anita Greenhill and Gordon Fletcher
GoonTooSoon also presents an alternative perspective to the mainstream re-
porting of death and murder that similarly brings an ancillary representation to
the core and mainstream of media reporting. The shifting and diminishing power
of tr aditional media in relation to everyday practice is equally important in un-
derstanding how mourning practi ces have come to be associated with new ac-
tions and spaces of experience. Many of GoneTooSoons memorials capture
and record (through a form of unintentional serialising) recent British social his-
tory, including knife crime in London, gun crime in Manchester, various hate
crimes, the abduction and subsequent murder of teenage girls across England
and the murder of prostitutes by men seeking fame as modern day Jack the Rip-
pers. The sensational deaths heavily reported by mainstream media overshadow
memories of individual lives and threaten personal memorials of life with recol-
lections of death and violence. These forms of memorialising create a form of so-
cial memory that potentially brings the fame originally sought by the perpetra-
tors of the murders. Doss (2002: 69) recognises the importance of this
interrelationship of media and mourning in relation to terrorist attacks on US
territory: The images, artefacts and rituals of these visibly public death-shrines
in Oklahoma City and Littleton framed issues of memory, tribute and collectivity
in contemporary America; their visual and performative dimensions clearly em-
bodied a vast collaboration of mourners and media. Rituals of memorialising
and mourning within ostensibly Christian societies have become more and
more spectacular as the actions associated with them have shifted beyond the
boundaries of the formal graveyard, private household or wake to occupy
more public spaces, including road-sides and social networks. The potential out-
come for the association of mourning with the constant cultural desire for par-
ticipation in and observation of spectacle is an obsession that approaches the
teleological fatalism well-evidenced historically in a range of cultures, but
most famously in Pharaonic Egypt (Meskell 2001). The contemporary need for
all life experiences to be articulated in the form of (social) media spectacle
that was predicted by Debord (1995) also influences the ways in which death
is mourned and particularly deaths that fall outside the norm of old age.
The GoneTooSoon memorial website as well as many of the memorials
found on other popular networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo articu-
lates the interrelationship of grieving practices, expressed through actions
such as social networking, with the imperatives of fame-oriented culture as
well as the fundamental duality of life and death. Similarly the increasingly
wide boundaries of acceptability and decency within contemporary culture
(Thompson 2011), itself influenced by cultural obsessions with fame and exacer-
bated by the ready availability of network technologies, mean that many memo-
rials are detailed and graphic in focusing on the details of the persons death
11 Life, Death and Everyday Experience of Social Media
rather than those of life. This has been aggravated on GoneTooSoon with the ad-
dition of memorials focused on some of the medias most highlighted murders in
recent UK history by the sites Admin, which has no direct family or friendship
connection with the individuals recognised by the memorial.
By utilising the methods of ethnographic observation and examining the
combined evidence offered through document analysis and direct presence in
the spaces that evidence thananetworking cultural practices, this chapter ex-
plores the complexities and intricacies of social networking around mourning,
the remembrance of life and of sensational death. While recognising that there
is a shift in specific cultural actions (moving from the use of a gravestone to
forms of digital momento mori), there remains a continuity of cultural practices
at a number of levels (including recording vital details and the relationships of
the person remembered). This chapter extends the theoretical proposals of boyd
and Potter (2003) where the real and virtual spaces of social networking are
barely separated, arguing that cultural practices shape and mediate cultural ex-
periences, irrespective of the place in which they are undertaken. Culture and the
practices through which it is expressed continue to change and evolve, irrespec-
tive of the mediating presence of wires and networks. The differences if differ-
ences are to be sought between traditional and contemporary practice of
mourning are found in the speed, frequency and accessibility of specific actions.
This difference has provided immediate higher visibility for social campaigns
founded as a memorial to a deceased family member, such as S.O.P.H.I.E
(www.sophielancasterfoundation.com) a modern version of the traditional
miracle a form of bringing back from the dead a loved one, in name at
least. A n equally significant question raised by the popularity of gonetoosoo-
n.org is how digital spaces offer wider potential for the construction of associa-
tions through simple linkages and mutual mourning. When the relatives of m ur-
dered teenagers whose deaths become well documented through mass and
social media associate themselves through tributes with the deaths of celebri-
ties, the meaning of this association and the role it performs in the individual
personal grieving process becomes problematised. This observation echoes
Doss (2002: 64), who claims:
Contemporary debate surrounding abortion, AIDS, euthanasia and gun control, however,
as well as increased popular interest in good death, the afterlife and bereavement therapy,
suggest the questioning and perhaps the lifting of certain death-related taboos. By exten-
sion, visibly public material culture rituals pertaining to death and grief suggest broad
and diverse interests in reclaiming death, in making death meaningful on personal, indi-
vidual levels.
Riches and Dawson (1998: 144 5) claim:
Anita Greenhill and Gordon Fletcher
The portrayal of death in modern society serves a cultural and symbolic purpose. Individ-
uals whose lives have been unremarkable may gain fame if their death is extraordinary.
Newsworthiness lies in the sensational nature of the death and in [audiences] identifica-
tion with the ordinary lives it has devastated. These stories contain messages about how
individuals grieve, offering the public examples of socially appropriate reactions (Walter,
1996) whose lives have been unremarkable.
These processes and approaches to death have evolved to become increasingly
clearly articulated within the GoneTooSoon environment and are the underpin-
ning basis for thananetworking.
3 Contemporar y culture and death
Discussions of the rituals and practices associated with death and dying are
well-rehearsed and remain a source of continued interest for a broad range of
social science researchers (Hart et al. 1998; Gibson 2004; Gibson 2007). As
more time is spent in the digital domain and a variety of intimate and public cul-
tural displays are extended into these spaces, it is increasingly appropriate to
critically examine what links to traditional rituals and practices are being dis-
played in the virtual domain. This examination necessarily includes considera-
tion of the mechanisms by which mythological belief systems are constructed,
reconstructed and perpetuated. We take up this examination by exploring the
problematisation of ritualised actions and cultural meanings being presented
online that have been reconstructed from conventional and traditional rituals as-
sociated with death. In particular, within thananetworking practice there is an
identifiable blurring of the meanings of fame and infamy and of the boundaries
between public and private forms of grieving and emotional displays. Thananet-
working, along with roadside memorials and other memorialising of death, also
moves the conduct of mourning rituals beyond clearly defined domestic or sa-
cred places. Doss (2002: 80) sees this as a cultural shift: The visual and material
culture of grief in contemporary America seems to suggest heightened popular
commitment to shift the discourse on death from medicine to culture, and dis-
tinctive efforts to make death meaningful memorable on personal and public
Reimers (1999: 154) highlights another rationale for the move to memorialis-
ing through thananetworking:
Markers of social position violate what in the funeral law is designated as good grave cul-
ture. The meaning of this expression is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is stated as a major
rule that the bereaved should be free to decide the appearance of the gravestone. On the
11 Life, Death and Everyday Experience of Social Media