In the days leading up to April 29, my social media feeds were dominated by scores of doleful messages imploring Indonesian President Joko Widodo to extend clemency to the condemned Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Some held candlelight vigils and uploaded them to Instagram. Others chose to use a memespiration-like graphic with the text ‘Because I’m not the person I was 10 years ago and neither are they’ accompanied with the hashtag #IStandForMercy, and posted it on Facebook. An emotionally-charged video – set to a plaintive piano melody – also did the rounds, in which local celebrities pleaded with the prime minister to ‘bring these boys home’ and ‘show some balls’ – platitudes that were in tune with the country’s broader emotional barometer but out of step with the realpolitik of foreign relations. Indeed, a few actors solemnly declared that ‘the time for diplomacy is over’. More haunting, at least for me, was the image Sukumaran had painted of a bleeding human heart, which was signed by all nine prisoners awaiting execution.
Our constant connection to the news and to the opinions of others means that grief can easily become a viral phenomenon. I was in Jakarta on the day Chan and Sukumaran were transferred to Nusa Kambangan, an island off the southern coast of Java that is home to four active prisons, most of which were built by the Dutch before Indonesia’s independence. It’s where former president Suharto imprisoned political dissidents and communist sympathisers, many of whom were left to languish for years, and where high-profile offenders – terrorists, drug traffickers and the like – await their death by firing squad. When, a few days later, I’d heard through journalists in Jakarta that two coffins had arrived at the Australian embassy, it was hard to imagine a trajectory other than the one that would cause us distress. I dreaded the execution, but I also dreaded the ensuing response and the hectoring op-eds to come. ‘We do not need to spare feelings for fear of being seen as arrogant westerners or hold back because Australia is so far from perfect – witness our treatment of asylum seekers, witness the outrage of phone tapping the former Indonesian president’s wife,’ Gay Alcorn wrote in a highly emotive op-ed in The Guardian, before calling for a Bali boycott. I shared Alcorn’s horror over the state-sanctioned murders of two rehabilitated men, but I felt perturbed by how grief and omnidirectional anger had obliterated all nuance.
Grief, of course, is routinely politicised. After Jill Meagher’s murder, community outrage appeared to have resulted in a tangible policy outcome. In February 2013, the state government gave Moreland City Council $250,000 to install nine CCTV cameras on Sydney Road, from where Meagher was abducted. But as of September 2014, only four were installed and none of them were operational, despite signage indicating otherwise. Meanwhile, the death of Daniel Christie in Kings Cross on New Year’s Eve in 2013 sparked debate about alcohol-related violence and eventually led to the NSW Government’s implementation of ‘lockout laws’ in Sydney, the results of which remain contentious. In the case of the Bali Nine executions, there is hope that grief can be catalysed into meaningful action or political activism. With sentiment in its favour, a global push to abolish capital punishment may seem well timed. But Dr Garry Hare, the program director of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, says the relationship between grief and activism is often overstated. ‘There was an assumption being made that the killings in the movie theatre in Colorado, for example, that the grief could turn to anger, and that anger would turn into some pressure on public policy, particularly on the issue of guns in America. And that didn’t happen. It happened only very temporarily,’ he says. He notes a similar response to the Sandy Hook kindergarten school shootings. Part of the problem, he says, is the way the news cycle distorts perceptions of what matters to politicians and the public alike. ‘It’s always about the next news cycle,’ he says. ‘We’ve sort of taught the population that all issues are temporary issues, and internet and social media have really exacerbated that. Here’s the story of the latest death of a black man in one of America’s cities and, by the way, do you want to see what these celebrities look like in their bathing suits?’
Staying logged in to Twitter and Facebook at all times exposes you to social media’s manic restlessness, which can be gently intoxicating, but it also makes you privy to the trauma of others, which can be overwhelming. Can consolation be found on social media? In most Western cultures, grief has typically been treated as a private burden, its toll borne by individuals rather than shared with the public. But it wasn’t always this way: historians have argued that prior to the 20th century, the rituals surrounding death and grieving were communal because death was a ‘constant companion’. It was also highly visible: mortality rates for infants were high; complications following childbirth were fairly common; and diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia posed considerable existential threats. In the historian Phillipe Ariès’s exhaustive tome The Hour of Our Death, published in the 1980s, he charts five historical phases that mark Western attitudes to death: the Tame Death; the Death of the Self; the Erotic Death; the Beautiful Death; and the Invisible Death. Aries posits that death had been transformed from a communal, visible and public ritual to an event that is routinely hived off to aged care homes and hospitals. Out of sight, he argued, and seemingly out of mind.
One thing we can say about social media is that it has ensured death is not out of sight. Death trends. Whether it’s the death of a famous person or a friend’s grandparent, social media gives us the ability to publicly acknowledge a death has happened – and to reflect on one’s mortality – while maintaining a degree of privacy and emotional distance. Suckers for cringe are probably familiar with the Tumblr sites ‘Selfies at Funerals’ and ‘Selfies at Serious Places’, both of which catalogue humanity’s (mostly teenagers’) boundless appetite for self-documentation. And while these actions have been the subject of much derision, I wonder if they’re simply a logical extension of our digital lives. We disclose all sorts of things online: our frustrations with people on public transport; how much we hate our jobs; pictures from an ultrasound. Are these new digital rituals for grief? Do they diminish the sense of loss that has taken place, or is it the affront to stoicism what makes us uncomfortable?
There are plenty of conventional rituals we associate with grief, like attending a funeral or a wake, or wearing black. For some, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage theory of grief and loss, first published in 1969, remains a foundational text. Perhaps a neighbour will bring you a casserole. Perhaps you will do none of these things.
‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,’ Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, dispelling the notion that acceptance is tidy and putting paid to the idea that a ‘resolution’ or a sense of closure can ever be achieved. I wonder what she’d make of public grief – the indiscriminate dragging of death into the open – and what this might reveal about our evolving sense of selfhood. Online, the self has ceased to be a fleshy, bodily identity and instead has become quantifiable: a set of data, or a string of adjectives and search terms that will show up that same day in a sponsored post. Grief – particularly public grief – is a commodity, much like outrage. Regulating your emotional experiences on social media, then, becomes a fraught experience.
The more time we spend online, the more our digital selves become less of an identity and more of an appendage. It becomes a part of us, an ungainly attachment that we cannot so easily disclaim. I’m never logged out of Facebook or Twitter, which means I’m always privy to a heated political debate or a clever witticism. Social media’s circadian rhythms – its ephemerality, its character constraints – are great for memes and discovering new forms of phatic speech, but less so for nuance or ambiguity. ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’ is a governing mantra; something people say and actually mean. How else will our friends (and their friends, and their friends’ friends) know what we’ve achieved or what we care about unless we tell them, publicly? In the wake of Stephanie Scott’s death, #StephanieScott became a trending topic. Many women paid tribute to the schoolteacher, who was murdered the week before her wedding, by taking a photograph of their wedding dress, accompanied by a message of condolence and the hashtag #putyoudressout. #keephopealive dominated my social media feeds as a tidal wave of collective anxiety and despair over the inevitability of Chan’s and Sukumuran’s deaths took hold. Emotional contagion is a force like no other, binding communities together in hope and in hopelessness. But it is also confronting – and not necessarily comforting – to come to terms with your emotions in this way and to express them, still raw, to captive audience.
In an era of hashtags, likes, retweets, and faves, the expression of empathy can often resemble a competitive sport. Sometimes it’s hard to know where grievance starts and aspiration begins, whether a moment of revelation, or a humorous quip, or a tribute to the dead is genuine or just a performance strategy. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2010, Zadie Smith wondered if ‘maybe the whole internet would become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous’. On Twitter this sentiment feels even more acute. Sure, there are fewer ads hawking products to me that I don’t want, but on Twitter I am both a hawker and a product, vying for visibility in a saturated market, receiving remuneration in the form of faves and retweets for my affective labour. No wonder I find myself discerning the motivations underlying every sliver of information that lobs into my feed.
Genie, you’re free. pic.twitter.com/WjA9QuuldD
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) August 12, 2014
Whenever a celebrity dies, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are flush with in memoriams and wistful recollections. These deaths are hashtag-ready, so grief becomes a meme in a literal sense. After Robin Williams’s death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Twitter tribute to Williams (an image of the Genie from Aladdin accompanied by the text ‘Genie, you’re free’) went viral – receiving more than 300,000 retweets – and raised the ire of mental health experts for violating guidelines for reporting on suicide. Similarly, when Adam Yauch died, countless people tweeted that the Beastie Boy had ‘finally reached Brooklyn’ #RIPMCA, which straddled the internet’s fine line between touching and uncomfortably maudlin. That grief is a messy and convoluted business tends to be elided by a dirge constrained by 140 characters. I was genuinely sad to hear that both men had died – and the circumstances surrounding Williams’s death were undoubtedly tragic – but I could not honestly say I was distraught. Seeing my friends access grief so publicly made me wonder whether I had some emotional defect. I thought about posting a Facebook update to register my acknowledgement but thought better of it; I had nothing pithy or poignant to add to the dialogue, no heartwarming tale of inspiration. Instead I spent the better half of my working day getting emotional over my friends’ tributes – particularly those who worked in comedy and TV – for whom Williams was a generational and professional touchstone.
I can’t remember ever being profoundly affected by the death of a stranger to the point of making a public declaration. The pace of social media and the flurry of concurrent dialogue often render me inarticulate, like I’m disconnected from the conversation. Had social media’s emotional deluges ossified my heart, making me reflexively cynical about these outpourings of public grief, which would cease as soon as the day ended or whenever the news cycle dictated? The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman called this seeming incapacity to summon a generalised sense of mourning ‘emotional FOMO’. After the recent death of Terry Pratchett, Burkeman recalls his response: ‘You’d have to be a monstrous cynic to doubt the sincerity of the responses to Pratchett’s death, from friends and fans alike,’ he wrote. ‘But me? I was roughly as grief-stricken as I suspect David Cameron was when he announced that he was “sad to hear” the news, which is to say: not actually sad at all.’
Dr Hare says that the internet doesn’t necessarily diminish the grieving experience, but it has introduced newer, more informal bereavement rituals. ‘As humans we’re still at a loss at how to react and how to interact. And then all of a sudden, the ability to communicate in very general ways started to impact all this. We saw it, initially, with a lot of the mass grieving over celebrities. Michael Jackson is a great example of that,’ he says. ‘It was different: people who may have been as upset as Elvis Presley fans when Elvis died. But it wasn’t necessarily people coming together to comfort one another; it was basically massive numbers of people who wanted to express their feeling, their emotion.’
But he also says that there are instances where the internet has made grieving more communal, in stark contrast to the fragmented, fleeting experience that characterises social media mourning. During the Haiti earthquake, he says, a number of websites were set up to deal with the aftermath of the collapse of the Hotel Montana, a popular destination for tourists and the Haitian elite. They were mostly there to connect loved ones to survivors, but also became a place to shares news and for prayer. ‘If anyone had any link to communications in Haiti, they could ask: does anybody know about my husband, my daughter, what have you. It became a sort of active social group,’ Hare says. ‘We could almost call it a social network.’ At the height of the disaster, more than 15,000 people had signed up to the sites, commiserating and comforting other strangers. The online ties forged from the earthquake are surprisingly robust, with many of the online communities still active some five years later, Hare says.
Disaster unites communities in a similar way to the aftermath of a shocking crime. Only a few weeks separated the deaths of Stephanie Scott and Masa Vukotic, both victims of murders that seemed senseless. Vukotic, a high-school teenager, was stabbed and left to die in a park in suburban Melbourne, while the exact circumstances of Scott’s death remain unknown at the time of writing, although we do know she was killed at her workplace by someone she knew. As countless online news stories began to populate my social media feeds, it became harder to suppress a kind of quiet despair. Minute details, not especially grisly but damning in their specificity, made me recoil. I felt my blood quicken, as if I was reading about murder for the first time. It was an object lesson in understanding what it meant to be a woman and therefore disposable.
It was impossible to log on to Facebook and not see friends – mostly women – grapple with the senselessness of the violence and the culture that permits these crimes. I too felt enveloped by a kind of hopelessness, as well as discomfort at how rapidly the narratives would develop, how quickly a murder victim could be co-opted as a plot point in a bigger story about our culture of violence. And yet I felt the compulsion to be up to speed with the latest developments in the case, constantly refreshing news websites for updates, mentally chronicling even the most minor of details. My voyeurism felt shameful – I was inserting myself into a narrative, and for what reason? – but I didn’t know how to articulate my misgivings online. Plenty of people were doing this publicly on Facebook pages and memorial groups, while using the #putyourdressout hashtag, speculating on motives and debating appropriate means to mete out justice.
The online news cycle demands a constant stream of fresh angles. Liveblogging the developments of a murder seemed salacious, but it seemed to feed a very real obsession. Each new revelation was folded into the rolling coverage. It was revealed that over a three-day period that Vukotic’s killer, Sean Christian Price, had also been charged with digitally raping a woman at The Word, a Christian bookstore in the suburb of Sunshine; robbed a 26-year-old man of his mobile phone; and attempted a carjacking of an elderly man outside a public library. (He had also punched Tony Abbott in the face nine years ago while the then health minister was visiting an acute care unit in an inner-Melbourne psychiatric facility.)
In the days following Price’s arrest, Michael Bachelard, an Age journalist, recalled the day he bought him a cappuccino in an article that was both craven and cringe-inducing. ‘He was strong, his muscles knotted,’ Bachelard observed. ‘Did he look like a man who might stab a girl in a suburban park at a random as she went for an evening stroll? No, but what does such a man look like?’ The simpleness of the prose suggested Bachelard was grasping at profundity, but to me the style seemed as literal as a child’s. A friend on Facebook likened it to the worst fanfiction. Still, journalists in my Twitter feed praised Bachelard’s article as a ‘great yarn’, a case study in how to comment on a case sub judice, but it felt like a goal-oriented lunge towards readers’ raw grief and anger.
Almost 80,000 people were members of a Facebook page called Remember Stephanie Scott, which began as a memorial site but then became a forum to discuss violence against women and public safety issues. The page discussed the murder of Melbourne pastry chef Renea Lau, who was on her way to work at five in the morning when she was chased across St Kilda Road, raped and murdered in Kings Domain. Her murderer, Scott Allen Miller, has received a 33-year prison sentence. Even though the comments were well meaning, they were hardly comforting. A brief sample: ‘So sorry RIP X’, a crying emoji, many calls to bring back the death penalty. Another post detailed a Mortein ad in which Louie the Fly, the anthropomorphised insect spokesperson for the bug repellent, expressed his sympathies for the #putoutyourdress movement in a Facebook post. A highly critical media reaction ensured Mortein pulled the post, but the vast majority of comments on Scott’s memorial page supported the company. In a much-liked comment, one woman wrote: ‘How sad that something so supportive can end up being a topic of conversation in a field of tears. I think Mortein have done something unprecedented and shown support in a way so unoffensive it is beyond heartache. So many people die every day – all tragic. But for a company to show their respect for this beautiful lady is a “lump in the throat” moment.’
How productive are these conversations on social media, and how do they help us make sense of the incomprehensible? The etiquette surrounding public mourning is evolving, but it’s clear that we’re still working out the bounds of appropriate behaviour. How should a person grieve online? When do we vocalise our emotions, and when should we stay silent? I noticed that in my feed, some women took the silence of men on the issue of violence against women as evidence of their complicity, while on Twitter there were women who believed that some men who were vocal were using the tragedy to score points for their progressiveness. A male friend confided that he wanted to show solidarity but stopped short of posting a status update because he didn’t want to be seen to speak for women. ‘Obviously the situation is so fucked and depressing,’ he said. He elected to like posts by women instead of post an update. ‘I wasn’t sure if it was my place,’ he said.
After Vukotic’s death, when detective inspector Mick Hughes told ABC Radio that ‘females…shouldn’t be alone in parks’, public sentiment had seemingly reached fever pitch. Among some the mood soured from grief to anger, and it became clear the narrative of the murder had taken on a life of its own. Depending on your politics it was either a cautionary tale, a case study in the dangers of male entitlement, a reminder of the necessity of feminism or a city under threat. A male acquaintance on Twitter said the furious response to the police officer’s ‘stay out of parks’ directive on social media ‘seemed to deliberately strip the comment of context to confect outrage’. And sure enough, there was a build-up of pre-emptive chagrin from aggrieved parties: #notallmen was deployed swiftly and indiscriminately, a reminder that for many men, emasculation is the ultimate humiliation. You could already hear the cogs of the online comment machine furiously whirring. ‘Travelling alone isn’t women’s biggest safety risk,’ read one headline on Daily Life. ‘Homicide detective Mick Hughes unfairly maligned in over women in parks comments’, argued The Age. As many have pointed out, a woman can’t feel safe in broad daylight or at her place of employment, which is to say nothing about a woman’s safety in her own home. The relentless frequency of these acts of violence made them feel as if they were beyond our control, much like a natural disaster, even though they were entirely man-made and therefore preventable.
Grief subsides, eventually, but true grief – as opposed to the display of grief – has no expiration date. Thousands marched down Sydney Road in honour of Jill Meagher, a testament to hope amid much futility. I was unnerved by the death of Meagher – as well as the deaths of Vukotic and Scott – but I didn’t know if I had a right to feel sad about it. In such murder cases, ‘it could have been me’ is a common refrain. It was a tragedy, but was it my tragedy? It feels like a shameful admission. No one wants to be seen as cold or dismissive of catharsis. To say that grief is performative is to question its authenticity. At the same time, social media is by nature performative, it’s a marketplace in which we publicly jostle for ranking and approval in which every event can be seen by the enterprising user – or publisher, or politician – as an opportunity for arbitrage. It’s distasteful to admit, but personal branding often masquerades as moral conviction.
The internet makes us feel we have the emotional bandwidth to mourn all deaths, and that we should do so publicly. But it also reminds us that there is no ‘one way’ to grieve, no textbook solution for dealing with loss, no matter how significant or remote. Perhaps my discomfort with online grief stems from a different kind of loss – an erasure of the increasingly outmoded conception of the self as enigma. Or, as Zadie Smith put it: ‘A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and – which is more important – to herself.’ As more of us lead lives of full disclosure, our emotional selves are shifting to embrace new realities and possibilities, like the idea that grief can be ‘harnessed’ for a higher purpose or serve as a catalyst for change, the idea that we, as individuals, matter. Self-determination must surely count for something, even if hashtag activism isn’t a panacea for social change and online expressions of grief are fleeting. But the alternative – staying silent – feels like capitulation. Perhaps we cling to social media’s narratives of hope amid adversity not necessarily because we believe they are realistic, but because the real world provides us with so few.