How Facebook Networks React to the Death of a Mutual Friend

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The emotional components to mourning and memorialization make it challenging to get a full understanding of - it is not really a thing that is easily measured or tracked, or processed in a quantifiable way. How people grieve contemporarily, with new technologies and media, and how those new tools change the impact a death can have on a group of people. In an empirical study published last month in Nature Human Behavior magazine, researchers set out to study exactly how social networks react and behave after the death of a mutual friend, and they found that despite losing "a substantial amount of social interaction", friends also increased interactions shortly after and continued those interactions for years.

Examining 15,000 networks on Facebook that had experienced the death of a mutual friend and then monitoring the interactions between the living friends of the decedent over time, researchers found that the networks of younger people in particular, ages 18-24, were more likely to recover connections out of any other age group. There still remain a ton of unanswered and unexplored questions - just how narrowly defined they can be and how specific the areas of inquiry - and everything from what kind of death (unexpected, long-term illness, catastrophic), who died, their age, marital status, if there a connection between online interactions and offline, etc. This study is presumably the first of many that just opens the door slightly to ways to examine how death and our lives online interact with and impact each other.

The actual published study itself gets a little technical, but worth reading thru to get a sense of just how, scientifically, they approached their question. This summary in New York Magazine is short and to the point, and Julie Beck from The Atlantic corresponded with one of the authoring researchers, who expounded on their findings.

We understand that social media and being online are vital parts of everyday life, and I think in the abstract we recognize that those tools can and do play a role in death, but exactly how is more of an open question. Studies like this one can help add some numbers to the observational and experiential data death care professionals gather every day, and provide some insight into how best to take advantage of these new technologies and ways of connecting.