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Has Twitter Handicapped Our Ability to Mourn?

In the weeks following Michael Jackson's death, more than 150,000 people commented on his Facebook wall and MySpace page. Some were straightforward ("I like the song beat it"); some were heartfelt ("Michael Jackson, you are the biggest love of my life"); and some spoke Italian ("Michael sei un grande, ti adoro e ti amerò x sempre. SEI UN MITO!!!!!!!!!!"). By and large, they had all gathered in the same place, at roughly the same time, to mourn the death of an icon—much as they would for a candlelight vigil.

mj tweet rateMeanwhile, on Twitter, the conversation was site-crashingly prolific.

Given the mourning precedents set by Facebook and MySpace, you'd think many—if not most—Twitter users would eulogize the King of Pop, or simply convey sadness. Not quite. According to Elsa Kim and Sam Gilbert, who spent weeks analyzing roughly 1.9 million Jackson tweets (and published their findings today):

As a loosely organized messaging network, Twitter does not operate as a "memorial" akin to clearly delimited online spaces like MySpace and Facebook. Given the short-lived nature of data on Twitter (the tweets [we analyzed] are no longer available in Twitter's search, which only goes back roughly a week), users appear more inclined to report Jackson's death as a current event and less inclined to memorialize or collectively grieve. Furthermore, Twitter appears to be a far more "personal" medium than other online spaces: tweeters tended to comment on sadness as individuals watching the public reaction instead of commiserating with particular friends or communities.

twitter michael jacksonIn other words: Twitter has handicapped our ability to mourn.

At its core, this conclusion isn't groundbreaking. Back in April, scientists claimed that "rapid-fire news updates and instant social interaction are too fast for the 'moral compass' of the brain to process." As a result, they argued, heavy Twitter users "could become indifferent to human suffering, because they never get time to reflect and fully experience emotions about other people's feelings."

Still, it's startling to see the theory in practice. To point: Only 2.3%, or 44,000, of the tweets Kim and Gilbert studied contained the word "sad." Of those, a sizable chunk mentioned it while cracking jokes ("Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, and now XHTML 2—so very, very sad..."); making observations ("Saddened and unsurprised watching the prices change on Michael Jackson CDs in second hand shops."); sharing unrelated information ("Shocked by Michael Jackson's death. Such a sad, sad day. Going out for a couple of sales calls, late."); and, um, wishing for merchandise ("Sadd... i love Michael Jackson...!! rest in peace... my mom better buy me a MJ T-shirt......").

I suppose you could argue that we all grieve in different ways, and Twitter simply reflects that. But so many of these comments seem downright callous, especially when compared to the paragraph-long tributes on Facebook and MySpace. Accordingly, I'm inclined to agree with blogger Joanne McNeil, who recently argued that Twitter has numbed our emotions, especially with regard to mortality: "Death is just something [users] think about until the next 140-character tweet appears."

Not that I'm in a position to judge. On June 25, I was too busy Twittering about other peoples' sadness to reflect on my own. "Just saw death confirmation on LA Times, hearing random MJ music all over the office," I wrote. "Definitely feels like one of 'those' moments."

[via Web Ecology Project (study), Raul Orozco (illustration)]