U.S. Army Major and blogger Andrew Olmsted was killed in Iraq on January 3, but his last blog posting appeared online a day later. Olmsted sent the post to a friend last summer and asked her to post it if he died in the war. The post covered topics from war and family and included a paragraph on blogging:
If there is any hope for the long term success of democracy, it will be if people agree to listen to and try to understand their political opponents rather than simply seeking to crush them. While the blogosphere has its share of partisans, there are some awfully smart people making excellent arguments out there as well, and I know I have learned quite a bit since I began blogging.The friend who published the last post also linked to places where readers could leave their respects for Olmsted, including a memorial posting.
As of yet, no overarching policy exists among services on what to do when a user or blogger dies. According to MSNBC:
MySpace avoids deleting the deceased's profiles unless asked by family members, which means the profiles-turned-memorials can stay active for years. Other social-networking and blogging sites, such as Xanga and LiveJournal, also host memorials tied to deceased users' pages.
"We often hear from families that a user's profile is a way for friends to celebrate the person's life, giving friends a positive outlet to connect with one another and find comfort during the grieving process," MySpace, a unit of News Corp., said in a statement.
Last April, Slate Magazine reported on social networking sites in the context of the Virginia Tech shootings, linking to the victims' MySpace and Facebook profiles and tribute websites.
But there are downsides of grieving online. Joanne McNeil of Brainwash Magazine is critical of the practice:
On the Internet, mourning has surreal or even sanctimonious undertones, especially for those who only knew the deceased as a web presence. It could be because emails and blogs are the worst places to communicate sincerity... The time-shifts that are the natural web-crawling experience prevent us from ever really dwelling on a tragic experience.Online mourning also creates privacy issues. Writing in Journalism Ethics, Alfred Hermida said that journalists' presence on social networking sites in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings was the equivalent of "barging into the [VT students' dorm] rooms and leafing through personal journals."
Researchers at the Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida, including Dr. Ilene R. Berson, are studying the impact of social networking memorials on copycat suicides:
On one end, because the frontal lobe of the brain doesn't develop until early adulthood, teens are naturally built to be impulsive, Berson said.
"In an online environment, they're bombarded with images and digital stimuli that strengthens the response of that part of the brain," Berson said. "It feeds that sort of behavior to engage in that activity."
But she realizes that digital spaces also provide outlets for grief.
"We may find that in general it provides a supportive part of the grieving process," she said.
Berson says plans for the study are evolving. But she's certain of this: MySpace is giving psychologists more insight than ever into the teenage mind and social structures."We are getting access to things we never had before, or at least didn't have easily," Berson said. "We can sort of watch from behind the scenes."