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)]

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9 Comments

  • Tyler Adams

    @Todd, I completely agree. I don't think that the majority of the people who were posting messages on Twitter or Facebook were actually "mourning". However, this article got me thinking about the different types of communities in social networking. I believe the 150k posts about MJ's death were less about grieving and more about being a part of the collective Facebook community. The same could certainly be said about the Twitter posts; however, except for early adopters I would argue that the overall sense of community isn't quite at Facebook's level yet, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

  • mark timm

    it's true.

    In fact, the internet has caused humans to be less-personal, a shorter attention span and with the rise of twitter, " the inability to mourn"

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  • Todd Ague

    For most normal people, there really isn't an ability to mourn unless the person passing on is someone we had a real, personal relationship with. That's the reason most of the MJ-related comments were humorous, or tied in with unrelated Twitter posts, etc. I don't think it has anything to do with Twitter, and I don't think Twitter has "handicapped our ability to mourn" anymore than skateboards, air travel or fast food has.

  • Debra Joy

    Dear Dan

    I really found this article interesting. I don't think Twitter has numbed our emotions. It's just not a place to express such deep and complex feelings such as grief. As Elsa Kim and Sam Gilbert pointed out Twitter is not a memorial site. I feel that people responded to the news of the death in a typical twitter style: quick thoughts, comments or posting to more info.

    But the digital world is not only transforming our lives, it is changing the way we deal with death. After experiencing the death of several loved ones over a short period of time my husband and I were inspired to create an online vehicle to let people determine how their lives would be remembered and celebrated. We developed www.Bcelebrated.com.

    Bcelebrated.com enables members to document their life as they are living it. They can write their story in their own words, adding pictures, videos, music and links to other sites. The site will become their permanent online memorial, including funeral and obituary information, at the time of their death. Members can create secure password-protected private pages to offer words to comfort, information about access codes or where important documents are kept. The site has an automatic notification system so the burden of tracking down contacts in a timely manner no longer rests on the shoulders of the grieving family. The notification will alert the community of the member's death and invite them to the site where they can share their own stories, read about the member's death in their own words, send a gift to the grieving family and access their private page if one has been created for them. People can sign into the guest book area and share their memories and grief.

  • Dan Macsai

    @Rodrigo Thanks - I probably should've gone with the more foolproof "Foreign Language I Do Not Speak Or Understand."

    @Raul Citation added at the end. Great work, BTW.

  • Rodrigo Webler

    >> and some spoke Portugese ("Michael sei un grande, ti adoro e ti amerò x sempre. SEI UN MITO!!!!!!!!!!")

    It's Italian, no Portuguese. In Portuguese it would have been "Michael és grande, te adoro e te amarei x sempre. ÉS UM MITO!!!!!!!!!!".

    Great article, BTW.