Grief in the time of social media has become its own complex area of study. Many people share their lives with friends and loved ones via online platforms, but what happens on social media when those same people die?
A new research paper published in the journal Nature explores how social media “friends” behave after the death of someone they follow. Not unlike what happens to social connections offline, when a mutual friend dies, online friends of the deceased person tend to become closer.
“It was a surprise to see just how much people came together after a mutual friend’s death and how long this persisted. Friends and acquaintances of the deceased increased interactions with each other not just immediately after the death, in the acute grieving period, but for years afterward,” lead researcher William Hobbs, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at University of California San Diego, said in a press release.
The researchers analyzed characteristics of 15,129 Facebook friend networks in which a mutual friend died and a comparison group of 30,258 Facebook friend networks where no mutual friend died. They then tracked tags, posts, and comments over four years. Friends who lost someone didn’t post any more than usual, but they increased interactions with each other. The researchers took this to mean friends of the deceased used each other to heal.
The increased closeness and subsequent healing wasn’t as apparent if the deceased friend committed suicide.
“We hope that these findings spur greater interest in how social networks adapt to trauma and crisis,” the researchers write in the paper. “Better understanding of social network adaptations could help us identify why social networks succeed or fail in recovery — and how social network failures might be prevented. The findings here, we believe, are an important first step in this direction.”