11 Life, Death and Everyday Experience of Social Media (2/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

other hand, it is up to graveyard authorities to decide the boundaries within which the be-
reaved can make these choices. These limitations, at least at modern cemeteries, usually
prescribe that every gravestone be kept within a clear shape, size and design.
Thananetworking overcomes one form of constrai nt regarding the construction
of formal memorials, but in doing so presents other constraints. What is, or is
not, possible within the ecosystem of Facebook, Bebo or GoneTooSoon represents
a different series of specific constraints to action. However, in contrast to good
grave culture, these restrictions are generally technical in nature rather than
existing in relationship to other memorials or to received notions of what repre-
sents good taste for a memorial and respect. The most obvious shift is from a
necessity for brevity, with a single photograph (if this is allowed at all) and a
specified number of words or letters, to an active encouragement for textual
and visual elaboration through photographs, clipar t, ASCII art and extended nar-
This understanding leads directly to the questions posed by our research.
Are the actions and communications found on memorial websites (such as gone-
toosoon.org) contemporary enactments of continuing belief pr actices?
4 GoneTooSoon: a site description
Gonetoosoon.org is a social network. It encourages its participants to inscribe
thoughts and memories as well as photographs and their own creative work.
This description does not provide any distinction from Facebo ok, Bebo, LinkedIn
or even Twitter or one of the many readily available blogging systems. What dis-
tinguishes GoneTooSoon is the focus upon mourning and the memorialising of
individual death the key distinction that we utilise as the basis to claim that
thananetworking represents a specifically identifiable sub-category of social net-
working. While members of the site can themselves have a profile, the focus of
the site is upon the memorials created for deceased individuals. In effect, living
members friend these memorials and create networks with the living members
of this site through the memorials of the deceased. In this sense, the dead take
priority in the GoneTooSoon space and represent the hubs of the social network
of the living.
There are few restrictions within the site anyone can create memorials to
anyone, and in the case of celebrity deaths there are often a number of separate
memorials that form separate hubs within distinct sub-networks of members.
The ability for anyone to create a memorial results in a disproportionate number
of memorials for famous people as the financial and etiquette restrictions of a
Anita Greenhill and Gordon Fletcher
physical memorial are removed within the GoneTooSoon space (an observation
that should also be contrasted with the audacious public grief displays such
as the £100,000 Michael Jackson memorial unveiled in early 2011 outside Ful-
ham Football Clubs stadium by the clubs owner Mohammed Al-Fayed). Impor-
tantly, the memorials of GoneTooSoon provide significantly more detail about the
life and death of the individual than a physical memorial. This capacity provides
one of the close connections of thananetworking with thanatourism.
Thanatourism involves visiting the burial site of an individual, where the ra-
tionale for visiting is tied to the story that makes the individual famous, infa-
mous or at least notable, r ather than any personal connection to the individual
who is buried (Walter 1996). GoneTooSoon constructs and mythologises an indi-
viduals identity after his or her death and, in many cases, creates similarly de-
tailed and expansive stories as those found at thanatourism sites. This also con-
nects thananetworking to the mass celebritisation of everyday life the desire to
know about the famous, or at least those who are currently figuring prominently
within mainstream media reporting (McAvan 2010). This desire to know is tied
into the compelling features of social networking, including the ability to be-
friend people who are famous and the capacity to express and show this asso-
ciation. But social networking, particularly in its conceptualisation as the Read/
Write Web or Web 2.0, is also about the desire to inscr ibe and actively engage in
the construction of meaning (Latour and Woolgar 1986). This invitation and de-
sire to constantly record and annotate association results in the GoneTooSoon
memorials actively contributing to a more general blurring of fame, infamy
and notoriety, while also contributing to the ongoing construction of an individ-
uals fame after death. The ability of social media to continue to actively con-
struct an individuals identity after death raises a number of contradictions
and engages these individuals with a range of broader issues, including the de-
gree to which a public individual has active control over his or her identity and
the veracity of any given identity. The presence of an aging population coupled
with the creation of generations of digital natives increases the likelihood that
memorialising in this way will increase. This further raises concerns about the
digital assets of the dead and what happens to these assets after an individual
dies. The rise of thananetworking highlights that there is no individual or family
control over a social memorial, and in many respects control has been passed
over to the Admin of the various social networking sites. Doss (2002: 70) simi-
larly recognises this complexity and contradiction in roadside memorials:
The relationship between mourning and material culture is timeless, of course, and both
older and contemporary American monuments testify to human desires to capture and rep-
resent memory, to pay tribute, to validate certain historical, political and social perspec-
11 Life, Death and Everyday Experience of Social Media
tives, and to grieve. Yet the spontaneous, often impermanent, and distinctly unofficial na-
ture of many of these roadside shrines, grassroots memorials, offerings and ritualistic be-
haviours seem less concerned with producing a critique of historical moments and tragic
events than [with] catharsis and redemption. This may relate to the nature of trauma itself,
and to the ways in which memory can fail because of traumatic events and episodes of
child abuse, civil war, torture, disease, natural disasters or the murder of family members
and loved ones.
The mythologising of the dead by the living can be considered as an attempt to
further define their own living identity (Doss 2002: 76). Within fame-oriented cul-
ture, this identity work includes attempts to define relationships with people
both living and dead who are, or were, famous as well as with individuals pop-
ularly defined as good or popular. Within GoneTooSoon, this ongoing identity
work constructs relationships around remembrance and grieving that in turn me-
diate and connect like-minded living individuals.
Our analysis of observational data from gonetoosoon.org inc luded identify-
ing and tagging events and instances of activities associated with ritualised prac-
tice, examples of storytelling activity and when community participants endeav-
oured to become associated with the celebration or mourning of the famous
dead. This body of evidence was subsequently scrutinised and examples extract-
ed to exemplify the belief practices and social relations enacted within these
5 Famous deaths vs. deaths of the famous
A visible feature of GoneTooSoon, and arguably a key source of its appeal, is the
range of famous deaths that it records and memorialises with a degree of detail
that would not conventionally be found within newspaper or television report-
ing. These memorials contrast significantly with deaths of the famous’–
which is more regularly the focus of thanatourism research including retro-
spective memorials that reference deaths that occurred before the establishment
of the site. Famous deaths are also increasingly marked by the development of a
campaign or a charity that remembers the victim and takes up issues surround-
ing the nat ure of the famous death itself. It is within the collection of famous
deaths that the visible creation of thananetworks is situated.
We offer the following series of vignettes to assist in defining the nature and
impact of famous deaths that are documented through GoneTooSoon.
Anita Greenhill and Gordon Fletcher
5.1 Ben Kinsella
Ben Kinsella was the school-aged victim of a knife crime in London in 2008 as
well as the half-brother of the former Eastenders actress Brooke Kinsella. Lisa,
who joined GoneTooSoon in August 2008, created the memorial and has never
logged on since (benkinsella.gonetoosoon.org). There have been over 3,400 visits
since the memorial was created. There are nine photographs on the memorial,
but only two of the photos are of Ben, including one of the images that had
been heavily used by the media immediately after he was murdered. Two of
the photographs are of the family after the murder; one is of a march with a ban-
ner, Why Ben?, while the remainder of the images are memorial cards that to
varying degrees bear Christian references. There are also fifty candles that have
been lit for B en. Living members of the Gon eTooSoon community have been
lighting these candles continuously since 2008. In contrast, the six tributes
that have been left are confined to the month immediately after Bens death.
Since 2008 the Kinsella family, but most notably Brooke, has been involved
in campaigning against knife crime with the foundation of the Ben Kinsella Trust
(benkinsella.org.uk), a television documentary and support for the increase in
prison sentences for knife crime. Brooke Kinsella has subsequently received
an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her campaigning against
knife crime in London and elsewhere.
5.2 Robert Knox
Robert Knox was a hopeful actor who appeared as an extra in one of the Harry
Potter films. He was also a victim of a knife attack in London in 2008. The me-
morial (robert-knox.gonetoosoon.org) was created by Donna, who has also cre-
ated memorials for Steve Galsworthy, a pub landlord from Bournemouth who
was stabbed by a gang in 2007; Richard Frank Cutler, who died in World War
II aged 23 (her grandfather); Danielle Perrin, the mother of a child at Donnas
childs school who was the victim of knife crime in 2008 in Poole; and Keith Cu-
tler (her brother), who died in 1962, eight years before Donna was born. She has
also created other memorials for violent crimes around Bournemouth (including
an attack on the same street as Steve Galsworthys pub). The Robert Knox memo-
rial has been visited over 2,700 times since it was created and has received 122
candles since then. Other memorials also exist for Robert though none have
been created by members of his direct family. The photos on Donnas memorial
include one of Robert on the set of Harry Potter, two portraits and two photos of
the flowers, gifts and balloons left at the site where he died. The memorial in-
11 Life, Death and Everyday Experience of Social Media
cludes a lengthy description of the attack and the subsequent court case drawn
from another website, evidenced by the bracketed word advertisement left with-
in the body of the description.
5.3 Sophie Lancaster
Sophie Lancaster was the victim of a hate attack in Rossendale in 2007 (not Lan-
caster, as the memorial claims) (sophie-lancaster.gonetoosoon.org). Sophie and
her boyfriend were attacked by a group of youths, primarily because they
wore goth fashions. Sophie rushed to support her boyfriend, who was initially
attacked, and as a consequence suffered head injuries that placed her in a coma
from which she never recovered.
This memorial was created by Admin Gts, who have created over 600 other
memorials. There have been over 4,600 visits to the memorial since 2007 and 255
candles left to date. There are 41 photographs included in the memorial, but only
two feature Sophie and these are themselves duplicates. The majority of the re-
mainder are memorial cards, many with overtly Christian imagery including a
celebration of Sophies two-year anniversary as an angel. Others feature the
face of Bonnie Barratt (and Jackie), while another has an image of Sharon
wearing the armband of the S.O.P.H.I.E. campaign. B oth Sharon and Jackie
are active contributors to GoneTooSoon. Sharon has created five memorial s
and Jackie has created nine.
Since Sophies death, her family has created S.O.P.H.I.E. and the Sophie Lan-
caster Foundation (sophielancasterfoundation.com), which has campaigned for
a widening of the definition of hate crime and been actively involved in fund-
raising, primarily within the North West of England through arts events and con-
These three short vignettes reveal the relationship of actions and efforts to
express feelings of injustice and powerlessness brought about by each individual
loss, and these are consolidated around the memorials found on GoneTooSoon
as well as elsewhere. In all of these exam ples, GoneTooSoon is not the site or
focal point of memorial or remembrance for the family of the murder victims,
but rather a space for more distant personal friends and strangers to express
grief and association and to recount the details of the famous murder. The indi-
vidual distance from the specific death opens up the degree to which an individ-
uals death and more broadly their life can be mythologised. The photos on So-
phie Lancasters memorial are wide-ranging in their meanings and their
sentiments, making it evident that they are more a reflection of the postersat-
titudes and worldview than necessarily those of Sophie Lancasters lifestyle or
Anita Greenhill and Gordon Fletcher