“Control Your Emotions, Potter”: An Analysis of Grief Policing on Facebook in Response to Celebrity Death
This blog post summarizes a full paper, available here.
Social media has become such a big part of people sharing life with one another. By necessity, it has also become part of sharing death. It is common now for surviving loved ones to share the news of a death via social media, and and for friends to respond with condolences, memories, or encouraging thoughts. These interactions typically follow the social norms of particular communities, in which people defer to the closest loved ones of the deceased to know what to say, or how to be involved in remembering that person.
When a well-known public figure dies, social media becomes a place for similar responses to those seen on the obituary post of personal friends. This is not surprising; social media has allowed people to feel more connected to celebrities they admire, or to even have direct, authentic interactions with them. Unlike you and me, when a celebrity dies, the announcement or obituary appears in international news. Responses to news announcements of a celebrity death are quite unlike the responses to an ordinary person’s death.
As a big Harry Potter fan, I took a particular interest in the responses to Alan Rickman’s death. Many of the comments I saw on Facebook news pages could have been written by the strict and stoic Severus Snape himself: “Control your emotions. Discipline your mind.” In other words, many people found it inappropriate that Rickman’s fans were publicly expressing their sadness over his death, and reprimanded them right there in the NBC News comment thread. People were policing one another’s grief.
Reasoning for grief policing varied. Some said true grief was private, and so expressing it in a public place was just selfish attention-seeking. Others said only those who knew Rickman in real life could feel true grief, and so used the comment thread to critique his films. Still more grief police claimed that an actor was not as worthy of public grief as first responders or members of the armed forces. Amid these comments were angry rebuttals that defended expressions of grief, or even invoked Rickman’s family members who might feel hurt by those who publicly refused to grieve.
Around the same time as Alan Rickman, David Bowie and Prince both passed away as well. The comment threads below their newspaper obituaries contained the exact patterns as those from Alan Rickman’s. Drs. Casey Fiesler and Jed Brubaker analyzed thousands of comments with me, and we came to the following conclusion: no one agrees on what kind of social space a comment thread is. Spaces can determine social norms, or what rules everyone has made an unspoken agreement to follow. We often used physical places and their social norms as metaphors for the different types of grief policing that were happening.
When people expressed condolences or grief in comments, they were treating the comments as a wake and acting accordingly with solemnity, respect, and even digital versions of funerary decorations, like 💐 🌹 or 💔. When people expressed criticism of Rickman, they were treating the comments as a cafe that might be across the street from a funeral home, in which people are aware of and observing the event, but speak more freely about the deceased. Finally, the people who disapproved of celebrity grief seemed to feel bombarded by others’ grief, as if they had been sitting at home while a stranger’s funeral procession marched through their living room. The seemingly-toxic comment thread is simply a reflection of differing opinions about which social norms are best for that particular online space.
Seeing death-announcement comment threads as a misalignment of social norms makes everyone on social media seem a bit more reasonable. However, the more common concern here is likely to be, “how can we make comment threads less toxic?” Our understanding of grief policing suggests that one thing that contributes to the toxicity is Facebook’s “Most Relevant” comment sorting feature. “Most Relevant” causes comments that get the most reactions and replies to move up to the top of the thread. The thinking behind that feature is that when the comments everyone wants to respond to are most visible, that will make for more conversation. But as the saying goes, more is not always better. When some of the first comments to appear on an article are negative, a snowball effect occurs. Gut-reactions full of strong emotions and contradicting opinions will keep controversial, or even cruel comments at the top of a sorted thread.
We suggest that comment sorting algorithms should be different by default when the news story is about a public figure’s death, perhaps highlighting simpler comments that follow more neutral or respectful social norms surrounding death. The goal of this change would be to ensure that, when someone learns about the death of a celebrity they admired, they would be able to feel connected to others who are also feeling a certain type of grief. It is a simple change that would allow social media to actually do what it was designed to do — connect people.
This is the first in a series of upcoming blog posts about papers that will be presented at the 21st ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. For more, follow the CSCW publication. This paper will be presented on Nov. 5th!
Katie Z. Gach, Casey Fiesler, and Jed R. Brubaker. 2017. “Control Your Emotions, Potter”: An Analysis of Grief Policing on Facebook in Response to Celebrity Death. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 1, CSCW, Article 47 (Dec. 2017), 18 pages.