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«THERE ISN’T WIFI IN HEAVEN 1 “There Isn’t Wifi in Heaven!” Negotiating Visibility on Facebook Memorial Pages Alice Marwick and ...»

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“There Isn’t Wifi in Heaven!” Negotiating Visibility

on Facebook Memorial Pages

Alice Marwick and Nicole B. Ellison

Marwick, A., & Ellison, N. B. (In press). “There Isn’t Wifi in Heaven!” Negotiating

Visibility on Facebook Memorial Pages. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.

Pre-press version. Please refer to final published manuscript for quotes and page numbers.

Abstract: Today, social network sites are a key site for public displays of connection and grieving. Mourners weigh the benefits of publicness with the problems associated with large and diverse audiences. The replicability, scalability, persistence, and searchability features of networked publics influence both how mourners grieve and their control over depictions of the deceased. This paper analyzes a corpus of posts and comments on Facebook memorial pages (N=37). We examine how the social and technical affordances of social media, and Facebook in particular, affect public displays of grief and portrayals of the deceased. The visibility of social media both encourages performative displays of mourning and allows wider audiences to pay respects. This openness allows for context collapse and potentially unwelcome participants such as “trolls.” We consider the ways in which the publicness of the SNS memorial page affects displays of grieving, specifically around efforts to engage in impression management of the deceased.

THERE ISN’T WIFI IN HEAVEN 2 “There Isn’t Wifi in Heaven!” Negotiating Visibility on Facebook Memorial Pages Online memorial pages provide an opportunity to study networked publics and the presentational affordances they offer. The mourning process in the United States involves both private and public spaces. Although many aspects of grieving are private, the need to share news of the death and bring mourners together means that family members or others must publicly distribute the death announcement, typically through newspaper obituaries, churches, or other venues. Social media have reshaped this process, due to their features of persistence, replicability, scalability, and searchability (boyd, 2010). Social media such as Facebook make possible future audiences that may not be anticipated by the participants. Moreover, the wide range of audiences that exist on public memorial pages give rise to different, and potentially conflicting, understandings around topics such as salient aspects of the deceased person’s identity, the purpose of the memorial page, and the nature of the mourning process.

Mourners experience the desire for openness and publicness, as well as tendencies towards communication contexts that are more private and closed. The newspaper advertisement or obituary spreads information about the deceased to as many people as possible, and public wakes and funerals allow community members to mourn collectively. Social media are very effective for sharing information with interested or relevant others, and may be superior to newspaper obituaries for this purpose because they are more likely to be read by and provide access to multiple, varied networks. However, the quasi-public nature of social media means that information about the death will also be shared with a larger public than just the readers of a local newspaper. These audiences may include strangers who wish to take part in expressions of public mourning (sometimes dismissively called “grief tourists”) or “trolls” (people who post deliberately inflammatory messages with a disruptive intent, usually under a pseudonym).

Furthermore, the communicative affordances of social media mean that any announcements distributed through these channels are likely to include the opportunity for feedback or user

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published in a static, broadcast medium, to a free-for-all discussion forum. Due to the warranting principle (Walther, Van Der Heide, Hamel, & Shulman, 2009), third party utterances may have more power to shape how the person is remembered, and thus this kind of forum may be threatening to those close to the deceased or those who are emotionally invested in controlling

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The wide and varied audiences common to social media also give rise to the phenomenon known as “context collapse” (Marwick & boyd, 2011; Vitak, Lampe, Ellison, & Gray, 2012), in which individuals representing multiple social contexts (e.g., work, family, high school acquaintances, close friends) are “collapsed” into the flat category of “friends” or “contacts” on social media sites, creating what others have referred to as the multiple audience problem (Leary, 1995). While in face-to-face situations people vary their self-presentation based on context and audience (Banaji & Prentice, 1994; Leary & Kowalski, 1990), this process of impression management is compromised in online contexts where friends and acquaintances from different social settings, classes, and cultures can consume and comment upon one’s online content, unintentionally or intentionally sharing conflicting portrayals or understandings of the person.

People use a variety of social and technical strategies to manage this context collapse, with varying levels of success. For instance, Hogan (2010) describes the “lowest common denominator” approach, whereby individuals only share content on social network sites (SNSs) that would be suitable for all audiences. Other strategies include deleting particular comments, untagging oneself from risqué photos, or creating “lists” in Facebook that make it possible to

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of conversation on the site: the deceased. Because he or she is not present to manage impressions by deleting content, separating audiences, or utilizing privacy settings, Facebook memorial pages constitute a unique setting for exploring context collapse in SNSs. In the case of public memorial pages, which can be accessed by anyone with a Facebook account, the potential for context collapse is even greater than on a personal profile limited to approved Friends. The public nature of online memorial pages and the broad audiences who are drawn to them offer an opportunity to explore the changing nature of public ritual in the age of social media.

This paper asks how the technical and social affordances of social network sites, specifically Facebook, affect one’s ability to communicate with different audiences. Using online Facebook memorial pages as a research site, we examine how these affordances affect portrayals of the deceased. What can this context help us understand about how SNSs are changing our notions of the benefits and challenges of being public? Specifically, this paper attempts to

answer two questions:

RQ1: How do the technical and social affordances of Facebook reshape the public presentation of deceased individuals and public displays of grief?

RQ2: How is “context collapse” managed when the subject of the page is not there to

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within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (2007). The Pew Internet project estimates that three-quarters of people online under the age of 30 use social network sites (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010); the most popular SNS, Facebook, has over 900 million users as of this writing (Facebook, 2012).

While specific technical affordances of SNSs differ by site or application, scholars have identified four characteristics common to social network sites. User-generated content on these sites is persistent, replicable, scalable, and searchable (boyd, 2010). It is persistent in that content created by users does not expire; even if it is deleted from the site, it is often available through caches or search engines. It is replicable in that it is easily copied, and can be posted elsewhere, combined with other content, or sent to other users. It is scalable in that usergenerated content has enormous potential audiences; the most popular videos on YouTube, for instance, have tens of millions of views. And it is searchable in that it is often indexed and easily accessed by curious viewers. The effect of these networked technologies on public life has been the emergence of what boyd calls “networked publics”: spaces and collectives where people interact through technology (boyd, 2010).

In person, interactions are co-constructed by the participants, making it both possible and natural to alter self-presentation based on social context and audience (Blumer, 1969; Garfinkel, 1967). As a result, people in face-to-face conversations alter the way they speak and the subjects they speak about based on a variety of audience factors, including racial differences (Fleming & Rudman, 1993), status differences (Leary & Kowalski, 1990, p. 38), and friendship strength

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The scalability of SNSs results in potentially wide and varied audiences, complicating identity performance in that users must self-consciously manage their own self-presentation to appeal appropriately to these audiences (Marwick & boyd, 2011). Although online contexts typically provide users with more control over their self-presentation (Walther, 1996), the common practice of Friending people of varying tie strengths in SNSs means that users must work harder to self-present appropriately to these different audiences; this can produce conflict when the audiences’ expectations of the user are both different and concurrent (Vitak et al., 2012). “Context collapse” has thus engendered a variety of audience management techniques, both technical and social, from the creation of multiple profiles, to coded language, to sharing only banal information (boyd & Marwick, 2011; Hogan, 2010). Such strategies and performances have been observed in many different digital spaces, including social network sites (Livingstone, 2005), blogs (Hodkinson & Lincoln, 2008), online personal sites (Ellison, Heino, & Gibbs, 2006), and personal homepages (Papacharissi, 2002). This process of impression management is complicated in Facebook memorial pages, as the person is not present in the social network to censor or monitor what is said about him or her. Memorial pages provide an opportunity to study context collapse in a situation where the subject has no agency or voice.

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The role of the internet in the grieving process has been examined by a range of scholars (Brubaker & Hayes, 2011; Carroll & Landry, 2010; Dobler, 2009; Getty et al., 2011; Roberts & Vidal, 2000; Wang & Gloviczki, 2008; Williams & Merten, 2009). Most of these papers focus

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and Vidal, for example, analyze online web memorials and find that they are primarily targeted to the living rather than the dead, and that they provide an important grieving function, regardless of the mourner’s relationship to the dead or how long the person has been deceased (2000).

Other studies have focused on the role of SNSs in the memorial process, primarily the profile pages of deceased young adults. Dobler (2009) describes teenage mourning on the MySpace pages of deceased friends. The paper finds that commenters generally do not interact with each other, but write as if they are talking to the deceased. He lists several types of comments, such as expressing sorrow, thanking the deceased for protection or signs, referring to “cues” from the deceased (such as “their song” playing on a radio), and planning reunions in heaven. Dobler frames this as “folk religion” much like roadside memorials to young people killed in automobile accidents (2009). Carroll and Landry (2010) found similar patterns in their study of 200 Facebook wall comments, such as sharing memories, “visible and public symbols of grief,” and praise for the deceased (pp. 344–345). Similarly, Brubaker and Hayes (2011) analyze 200,000 comments on 1300 MySpace profiles collected from MyDeathSpace.com, a site that aggregated the profiles of deceased MySpace users. They found similar patterns in these comments as did previous studies, including comments written to the deceased, shared memories, and maintaining ongoing bonds with the dead.

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different from online memorials. First, there is a difference in temporality. While Dobler sees MySpace profile pages as eerily fixed at the time of death, Brubaker and Hayes conclude that

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were observed by Williams and Merten (2009), who found that posting comments was a way for adolescents to maintain connection with the deceased and maintain the “same relationship” they had with the dead. Second, SNS profiles are constructed by the deceased while online memorials are put together by friends or family. This is particularly salient on MySpace, where profile customization is common and page graphics, fonts, and audio are usually chosen by the profile owner. On Facebook, profile pages have a consistent look and feel; moreover, Facebook pages can be updated by people other than the owner, through tagging photos and posting to the Wall.

With Facebook’s new policy regarding the ability to “memorialize” pages, this has become irrelevant as mourners can post on a public, shared grieving page set up precisely for that purpose rather than the person’s profile.

The phenomenon of context collapse with regard to death has been observed by other scholars. In their MySpace study, Brubaker and Hayes (2011) found evidence of context

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Previously, survivors from separate social spaces may have developed these narratives in relative isolation. The SNS profile, however, often cuts across different facets of the deceased’s life, increasing the probability that survivors will encounter multiple parallel depictions of the deceased. In this way, SNSs prompt new questions about ownership of the identity and the technological ability to negotiate different narratives for the deceased in one shared, albeit virtual, space

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Parents of Murdered Children (POMC), to explore the identity work that goes on after death.

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