Within hours – if not sooner – of the announcement of the death of former NBA basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, who along with his 13-year-old daughter was killed in a tragic helicopter crash, condolences came pouring in on social media. Thoughts and prayers came from fellow players, celebrities, former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
By Monday however, Twitter was also filled with posts from those who said they needed a break from the platform to process the sudden loss of the sports star. The death of Bryant and his young daughter was shocking, and for many even posting condolences or prayers for the family was too much.
This is understandable. We live in an age where social media has evolved from personal communications between friends to a broadcast tool to the world. This works well when it comes to sending congratulations – such as how it was used during Sunday night’s Grammy Awards. However, offering condolences via social media can seem wrong.
“Communicating about death on social media is a tricky situation since social media is usually associated with showing off what great things we are and bragging rights,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research.
While social media may allow fans to share their condolences it is very unlikely most of the world will even pay attention. Social media certainly may not be the best way to offer condolences to a friend or family member. Despite the “social” aspect of social media, this is hardly personal or direct.
According to a report published by WebMD last summer, most people who are grieving find social media posts or messages about their loss to be pointless, irritating or even distressing. Few respondents to WebMD’s study actually thought condolences offered on social media were a good idea!
“Social media must be considered ‘public space’ and one must tread carefully when sharing intimate messages,” suggested Crandall. “Sending condolences via social media should only be posted as a direct response to an announcement of somebody’s death for the vast majority of people who lead private lives.”
In the case of Kobe Bryant, most people likely found out he had died from a news report online or via TV/radio. He was a public figure, one with a large social media following – so it was almost natural that people would want to respond publicly.
“Context or relationship matters when offering condolences, but social media has blurred the boundaries between private information and public announcements and methods for emotional expressions,” explained Susan Schreiner, technology analyst for C4 Trends.
“It’s one thing when a private person shares on a Facebook page or via Twitter the death of a loved one, and friends and family respond,” she added. “The reaction to a celebrity death is more complicated since a celebrity is a ‘public’ person. The death of a celebrity is usually made via breaking news or an official public announcement.”
This can be followed up for days or longer if this was the result of an accident or was otherwise seen as untimely – as it is in the case of Bryant. Fans will have questions and social media could be a place to turn.
“Whether it is the death of PBS’ News Hour anchorman, Jim Lehrer, or Kobe Bryant who passes, the audiences who have followed these famous people through their careers feel the need to share their grief when they pass,” said Crandall. “Sharing one’s grief about a celebrity’s passing is a way of sharing the importance that the celebrity has had on a person’s life. All are sharing from their hearts and the sentiment is almost always love. Social media is one of the few outlets where fans are able to share their loss and connect with others who are mourning the loss.”
Social Media Relationship
Even more than Facebook or Instagram, Twitter is where fans likely feel the closest connection to celebrities such as Bryant, so even though his passing wasn’t presented on this platform it should have been expected that fans would respond via it.
“We live in an interactive information society with social media often becoming the online 24/7 version of the tabloid,” said Schreiner. “We’re seeing celebrities making a ‘contract’ with their fans through social media during their lifetime. They build relationships with their fans by dribbling out information, hyping a movie or promoting a product endorsement. In turn, the fan feels connected to the celebrity.”
There is has become a venue where fans and supporters can express both grief and respect. The question becomes whether it is for the fans to get through this difficult time, or whether it is a shallow or vapid way for those followers to become part of the story.
“Is it shallow,” pondered Schreiner. “To bystanders it might, but how many of an earlier generation remember, ‘where were you when President Kennedy was shot?’ We didn’t have social media but instead people were glued to their TVs for days. The New York Times reported that more than a million letters were written to Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. People felt a part of this tragedy and sending letters was how people comforted themselves then, and perhaps social media is how they deal with their grief today.”
Risk Of Offense
The other problem with using social media as a tool for condolences is that it could come off as crass or even create misunderstandings with an inappropriate hastag.
Among the most infamous was in 2013 following the death of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which resulted in the #NowThatcherisDead, which was read by some as “Now That Cher is Dead!” This eventually morphed into a joke, which itself went viral.
It was hardly a good way to honor the Iron Lady.
“Social media is public so notifying of a death is appropriate for a large audience,” said technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group. “For personal notes in either direction it isn’t a good venue as you could offend, or trigger a response tied to the emotions of the moment which could be personally damaging or cause unintended pain. This goes triple if you didn’t like the person.”
Then there is even the dangers that sharing condolences via social media can have on those who aren’t in the spotlight.
“There are risks with social media just like obituaries in that the post could trigger a hostile actor to take advantage of the grieving aging family members or there have been incidents where thieves attacked homes while family was at the funeral services,” added Enderle. “Personal details, particularly dates of events, should be handled using a more personalized and more restrictive service like email.”
Most importantly, social media isn’t the place to bring up past controversy at times such as this, even if the person was a celebrity.
“Responses should be in line with ‘sorry for your loss’ and not ‘I hope the SOB burns in hell,'” suggested Enderle. “Generally, particularly for things like this, if you can’t say something nice and brief you should likely not respond at all in social media.”