11/13/2012 05:22 EST | Updated 01/13/2013 05:12 EST

Why We Follow the Dead on Twitter

When a person passes away, their social media presence lives on. We see this every day with each passing, especially when the nature of death is interesting enough for media to seek the Facebook profile or Twitter account to source photos or posts for the corresponding story.


When a person passes away, their social media presence lives on. We see this every day with each passing, especially when the nature of death is interesting enough for media to seek the Facebook profile or Twitter account to source photos or posts for the corresponding story.

In recent months, I have noted a number of high profile events where the social media content of the person who passed was not only sought after by media but by those who use social media to keep up with the story as it progresses.

During the summer of 2012, we saw the Colorado movie theatre shootings where one prominent social media user lost her life leaving behind a Twitter account that quickly increased in followers as her story spread. The purpose of social media is to engage and to interact with others online; this behaviour of following the dead is compelling, especially considering how simple it is to convey sympathy through a hashtag like #RIP.

I thought about this in reflection of real life as we lose friends and loved ones. I wondered, do we "like" obituary pages in the newspaper or do we respect them?

When we see hate shared on a memorial page online, does this behaviour exist because the troll wants to prompt anger and attention knowing that they are sharing openly but anonymously and would that person make the effort to violate the sanctity of a family in mourning at a funeral?

The shootings in Aurora, Colorado left a number of answers for investigators on social media, especially from those who survived. We all became front line spectators looking at Tweets as movie goers arrived in suspense for the movie event and subsequently viewed pictures and posts as they were shared from those in the theatre.

@JessicaRedfield who perished in Aurora had 2,328 followers on Twitter when she entered the theatre and after the shooting and announcement of her death, that number slowly grew to 7,198 within 11 hours of her last tweet. Within 13 hours that number grew to 10,100 followers, 14,400 within 17 hours, 20,700 within 23 hours and 22,800 within a day of death.

Many Twitter users prefer quantity of followers compared to quality and in my work, I try to educate youth about the value of positive connections online compared to the inflated value of acquaintance. Facebook friendship has always been a conversation piece in my work where I encourage users to engage their friendship list with real-life valuations. Would you pay a dollar for every friendship request online? Would you cull your friendship lists if you knew how a person is actually using your shared content, especially when we see how online users abuse the content left behind by the dead on social media websites?

One test I encourage is the "Write it Down" reflection -- take a pen and paper and write your Facebook friends down on paper from memory. See who you forget, why do they have access to personalized content online if you cannot remember who they are?

The death of Amanda Todd in Vancouver shook students, parents, schools and police. Dialogue occurred within communities about addressing bullying, social media safety all while content that this child left behind online was horribly used by users around the world, surfacing after being altered in Photoshop. People changed her photos with content that they thought appropriate for a laugh because they would never have to look her family in the eye. I became curious about those who shared her name, what social media effect did the other women named Amanda Todd see?

Here are a few sample Tweets from women who shared a name with a child who committed suicide. These women posted compassion, comparison photos in defence of their identity, links and accepted new followers all throughout the online hysteria that accompanied the news of this prominent suicide.

"I'm a different Amanda Todd, so please stop asking if I'm dead or fake. I'm neither. I'm totally different"

"Like the WORST way to get followers :/"

"QUESTION!" Why would someone want to follow a girl that just passed away. Lol it's not like she's going to be posting things...."

"this is not me. i am not the Amanda Todd that committed suicide. leave me alone"

Parents, we worry about our children online, but have we factored in the constant contact that the outside world has with those in your home, especially when your child shares a name with a person who has recently passed away?

Consider opening dialogue with your child if there is an event noteworthy enough to connect your family name to a story and ask yourself how you will deal with the death of your child and the people who will use social media to attach themselves to the story. Whether it is using the photos that your child leaves behind to create something to add further hurt to an imaginable situation, fake accounts that will surface in your name or the name of your child and how you will address the new followers your child has online because of the social media accounts they had while living?

The family of Jessica Redfield Ghawi kept her Twitter account active in the hope that the online memorial would provide awareness to the nature of her untimely death. Some 30,000 people followed within a week of her death. Currently, Jessica's Twitter account has 26,800 followers but the Twitter account that is set up for the scholarship in her name @JRGFoundation has just over 3,000 -- take some time and see if we can continue to help beyond a follow.

Those who are reading this and have a value for followers ( #TEAMFOLLOWBACK I'm talking to you). Have we considered how our families will cope with the people who want to add to the drama of death by increasing pain from behind the veil of the Internet? What happens to online social media accounts when we do not leave behind passwords, login info or access for parents who are dealing with the loss of a child?

In my work today, I ask youth why they hesitate to give parents access to their online accounts, many reply because it is rooted in a fear of getting in trouble for the content. Parents learn what has been posted in various routes, whether it's gossip, school administration, police, but when the child isn't there anymore to block access and the password access would maybe hinder the flow of information that may be abused online, for many parents, the online issues just add to the torture of losing a child.

We most likely will not have success in changing why the followers appear or how the trolls and bullies behave but we can change how we share the content that we will most inevitably leave behind. I encourage parents to build password trust, especially as your kids grow in a connected world where you may not get to provide input on Rest In Peace Facebook pages, YouTube tribute videos, and hate content built on the foundation of photos left behind by children who depart entirely too early.

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