My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Facebook and MySpace used as site of mourning/memory

Yesterday, Christine Dao (a junior at Berkeley) died in a fatal car crash. As an act of mourning, her friends wrote her dozens of comments on her Facebook Profile and MySpace Profile. These Profiles serves both as a site of mourning and a site of memory, showing Christine’s life and the love of her friends.

Christine your vigil tonite was beautiful; it’s amazing to see how many lives you touched. I’m still reeling from it all…we miss you. — Scott

Hey Chrisitne…you alway had a energetic personality, always smiling…you were one of the few that were always there for me….im going to misss you sooo much!!! rest in peace.. — Jeff

Hey Beautiful!!! I can’t imagine what happened but only to know that no matter what you will never be forgotten. The memories we’ve shared would only be cherished and we will always miss you my kid…Rest In Peace…see you when I get there…. — Pao

There is no good way to mourn the loss of someone young, but what fascinates me about these messages on Christine’s Profiles is that they are all written to her but visible for everyone to see. A persistent, public signal of mourning. Her friends are speaking _to_ her, not about her.

Her actual Profile is unchanged even though it looks so alive. Her photos show her in action and her interests include statements like “love going to Cal Football games. laughing. finding cool people who i can laugh with. cracking jokes. getting jokes cracked on me. music-ing. rsf-ing (need a work out plan like Kanye West). taking long walks. my hoes. having FUN!”

What does it mean to write persistent comments for the dead? Is it a sign of respect, of public remembrance? I hope so. Rest in peace Christine.

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16 comments to Facebook and MySpace used as site of mourning/memory

  • it’s interesting how her friends have altered their own profiles as a way to mourn her as well…

  • julia

    probably what first shocked me was 1) that so many people addressed her personally in an informal manner, and 2) the annoyingly nonchalant way so many people posted comments.

    ——
    I love you more than mahn does!!!!!!!!!!!! haha girl, YOU WILL FOREVER BE MISSED !! rest in peace and I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!
    ——
    i luv u b-hole! RIP dao .
    ——

    etc… and the ones with smiley faces… I don’t know. It was my first experience with “dead people on the net”… I talked to my friends and one told me it’s a common occurrence on myspace. But I hadn’t seen it on facebook before (he had though). I don’t want any exclamation points or smiley faces or posts with misspelled words by random people on my facebook wall when I die. it just seems inappropriate, I can’t pinpoint why. Just shocked me to read.

    Also got me thinking about something I’d been wondering before… do any companies with online presence like e-mail or social networks have policies for what happens when their clients die? Can someone else log into their accounts? Will someone else start paying for a paid subscription to an online network or something? Can someone else decide to delete wall comments?
    Two of my friends who know my facebook password promised to disable my facebook wall if I die…

    Anyway. What do you think, danah?

  • interesting also what the deceased have as privacy intentions online.

    when i was in college, a close friend of mine died in a motorcycle accident — his fault, wasn’t wearing a helmet, driving recklessly, but no less tragic for his family and friends.

    what was weird about this was his family had no idea he even *had* a motorcycle, and he had used his cousin’s name to register his motorcycle license. this resulted in confusion when the police tried to contact his family and let them know he was in intensive care (he was in critical condition for first few days before passing on).

    as one of the few friends who had actually met his parents, i had the uncomfortable & excruciating task of confirming to his parents that a) yes, he did have a motorcycle, and b) yes, he was involved in a critical accident, and was in the hospital in intensive care.

    looking back on this incident, i wonder how it would have been impacted by an online persona. jim had chosen a portion of his life to remain closed to his parents — whether or not i agreed, i was drawn into the disparate profiles of his personality he was maintaining in the physical world.

    in an online world where friends and parents might collide, it would be delicate for someone to maintain such a separation — and likely even more challenging for their loved ones and friends to discover this separation post-mortem.

    jim, i hope you’re doing well… wherever you are. you are still sorely missed.

    – dave mcclure

  • I also had a friend pass away recently (July). I had written a blog post about him being injured in London (he died as a result of one of the London bombs).

    Because I mentioned his full name, I had a lot of people those that knew him ending up at my blog after a search for his name. It was an interesting experience to say the least.

    At first (because my original post was about me hearing the news of him being injured and in a coma) the comments were those that knew him saying how they knew him, and hoping that he awakens from the coma. Then after a few more days, and there was news that he had passed away, others also contributed comments and my comments area felt like a public condolence book.

    You can still read the comments here:
    http://will.id.au/blog/archive/2005/07/09/to-a-friend-hurt-in-london#comments

    The comments were amazing. I also got other emails directly from those who didn’t leave a comment but were also friends of his. As well as emails from the media.

    What is different compared with the type of comments posted to Christine’s profile was that they were written in well structured english. Some were to him, some were to me (the blog author), and some were just general comments about their memories of him.

    It was just incredible, and a testiment to the guy. Just showed how many he did touch, and in many different ways.

    When I posted, I was just posting my thoughts. I didn’t think the post would get all that attention that it did. But that is the power of the various search engines (mostly Google) out there. My blog post was picked up about 1 or 2 days after I posted, and the first comments started to come a few days after that.

  • Kelly

    made me think… about a lot.

  • sc

    I don’t understand your fascination with this occurence. Christine Dao is one of my best friends and I for one was happy to see that people wanted to write on her facebook and myspace as a way of showing what she contributed to so many lives. I am appalled at the fact that people who didn’t even know her are discussing her death and her friend’s reactions. If you knew her…you would know why people felt the urge to write on her websites. This is not another study about the effects of blogs, this is the death of a person. I don’t understand why you are making a mockery of her…it really hurts enough without all of this nonsense going on. I truly am appalled.

  • sc – i’m sooo sorry to have upset you. I am very much not trying to make a mockery of her. I think it is amazing that her friends are remembering her in such a way. What i find surprising is the structure and tone of the comments. It’s also important to note that some of her friends are really upset by the casual tone of those messages – they feel as though it is a rude way of remembering, similar to Julia’s message above.

    When i was in high school, one of my dearest friends died in a tragic accident. When we held the funeral, everyone got up and told stories for over three hours, talking about how he contributed to our lives. We remembered him through storytelling; it was one of the most powerful days of my life. What is confusing to me is that we knew our audience was each other – we talked to each other about how amazing he was. What i don’t understand on Christine’s message boards is that people don’t seem to be writing to her. A lot of digital memorials exist – on blogs, on Friendster, on Flickr. The difference is that people are remembering in third person whereas people are writing in second person on Christine’s pages. I simply don’t understand and it is surprising to me so i wanted to document it.

    Julia – in response to your question – most companies keep profiles and blogs that contain memorial work. They become the property of the estate. Thus, if a family member sends in a copy of the death certificate, they are given control over the account.

    I believe that the digital world is a great place to honor the dead, to remember them forever. It is a persistent environment and it is so important to remember and so valuable for the living. For example, take a look at Barlow’s memory of Cynthia.

    Again, i’m sorry sc – i’m sorry for the pain you must be experiencing. Please understand that this is not meant to be a mockery of your friend, but a question of what we are doing as a society to remember.

  • Bradley Horowitz

    We did this in 1995 for my friend and mentor Martin Friedmann. Martin was a freak genius skateboarding blur that left a huge impression on the MIT community and anyone who met him. Even in ’95 he “got” the internet completely and did some amazing things (MBONE), before taking his own life. The “Memorial Wall” (that I believe Judith Donath set up) was a powerful place to grieve and connect with others…

  • A particularly beautiful e-memorial is at Tribe.net on Marla Ruzicka’s page. Her friends have turned it into a living memorial, a great little scrapbook of extraordinarily moving testimonials and memories. And check out the August 6, 2005 item: someone posted a job listing for Marla’s old job helping civilian victims of the American campaign in Iraq. So her memorial is being used to replace her. Weird.

    To respond to Danah’s initial point, I don’t see anything in there that appears nearly so informal and hip-youth-culture-ish as in the new Berkeley memorial, but we all have our own ways of remembering. I mean, some people might not appreciate graffiti memorials or airbrushed T-shirts, but they are pretty popular in Oakland and San Francisco.

  • This is very similar to issues we had with the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Anyone could make a panel and content was pretty much unrestricted. We rarely had problems, but from time to time we had instances like:

    – Once someone said they knew both the panel maker and the person memorialized and “He would never want that piece of trash to make a quilt panel for him!”

    – Once a family got into a fight in front of me about trivia about the deceased.

    – More than one person came up to me and said, “Is there somewhere I can register my name so people will not make panels for me when I die?”

    And so on….

    I also recall when a group of kids in my highschool died in a car wreck. Most of the school went to the funerals – not because they knew them, but because it was an excuse to get out of school.

    What we see here is a group of people, who have long running inside jokes, sharing them one last time with someone they care about. They are holding their own on-line wake in a natural way for them.

    And, oddly, there is often a great deal of internal respect in what appears, externally, as disrespect.

  • Maria

    Seeing these comments reminded me of the website “Worldwide Cemetery”. It was started in -95 and is still on-line at:
    http://www.cemetery.org/

    It includes both information about loved ones who have died, as well as letters to them, photos, ways of communicating with other mourners (by leaving virtual flowers).

  • I saw an awful crash just this morning on my way to work. It’s such a stupid death.

  • Allyssa

    hey hey hey how do u sign up

  • something strange that i’ve recently found: http://www.mydeathspace.com