The anatomy of online grief

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The anatomy of online grief

An exclusive chapter from 'All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age', by Elaine Kasket (courtesy of Robinson).

If you’re taking a plane to Ireland from an English airport, you’ll find that you start your descent at right about the moment you reach cruising altitude. Arriving at your destination, you will hardly experience a revelation to the senses – architecturally, topographically and meteorologically, Ireland feels a lot like many parts of England. Less visible to the naked eye are the cultural differences, the often-radical step-changes in outlook that are so easy to underestimate when there’s a common language. Less than two hours’ travelling time can catapult you into an entirely different culture of grief.

The first time I crossed the Irish Sea, I was going to speak about mourning on social media for some organisations in Dublin. It was 2014 and online mourning was now a reasonably well-known phenomenon. I was a bit taken aback, therefore, when it garnered a considerable amount of media attention, and I voiced my surprise to one of my hosts as she was driving me to do a talk at the Psychological Society of Ireland. I think this feels quite new here, she said. Maybe we’re just a bit behind? Hmmm, I thought. I wasn’t sure why that would be. One of my PowerPoint slides that weekend featured a graph plotting Facebook usage in various countries, and there certainly wasn’t that much of a difference between Ireland and England.

But then again, wherever I go, especially when I’m speaking with digital-immigrant audiences, I still encounter some level of concern about going online to grieve. Radio and TV presenters express their reservations in exaggerated, emotive ways, turning up the provocation to keep the audience tuned in: isn’t this all a bit creepy? I mean, it’s pretty morbid, talking to dead people online, isn’t it? Everyone asks questions that pull for binary, black-and-white answers: is it good or bad to mourn online? Is it healthy or unhealthy? Should we be worried or not?

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Elaine Kasket