Natasha Gural's picture

    When Social Media Becomes Too Much To Bear (Death Goes Viral)

    I’ve thought a lot about this trend of people planning and sharing on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, anywhere online they they’ll gain the most attention, the most morbid and intimate details of death, knowing they will go viral. Today’s post by Martin Manley explaining why he chose suicide has narrowed my opinion to two options: I am, by all accounts, an old school oldster who can’t deal with the oversharing, hypersocial world that would be embraced by a real post-modernist; this is a sign that we’ve ignored death far too long as a society and now people who cannot deal with the pain must express themselves publicly with the desire of informing as many people as possible.

    Let’s assume the latter, as the former does nothing but make me seem old. I’d rather think of myself as an old fallen scholar.

    In 1989 or 1990, I took an English class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with the incomparable Charles Kay Smith, who encouraged us to debunk the limitations of a birth-school-work-death linear existence. He posited that we Americans have become as prudish about death as the Victorians were about sex. Consider, he asked us, how even our language has shifted to conceal death from our daily existence. In the 19th century, the front parlour was the room in the house used for formal social events, including where the recently deceased were laid out before their funeral. The term living room was used in decorating literature of the 1890s to reflect the personality of the designer, rather than the fleeting Victorian conventions. It was one of those moments when I realized how different I was from any of my peers (a moment that that came often, ever since early childhood when I was able to speak.) In my home, there was a living room. It was a formal sitting room, with a white sofa, artwork and other furniture and decorative pieces that were to be largely untouched, aside from dusting cleaning, when there were no guests. We did not have a parlour, but my mother’s mother -- who had died in my parents’ home where my mother alone cared for her while she was bedridden for some nine years -- was waked in the home. My mother chose to use the dining room, as that is where she keeps her main altar and her most precious Russian Orthodox icon. We had a lively wake, following the somber religious service. For the Russian and Orthodox guests in attendance, this was a typical experience. For the others, this was a new experience, though nobody seemed obviously aghast. It does help that the service is followed by a lively reception with replete with copious amounts of homemade food and adult drink. A kind of Irish wake, with vodka instead of whiskey and piroshki instead of soda bread.

    I have friends who hadn’t been to their first funeral until they were in their 20s. To me, this was shocking, as I’d been going since I was an infant, open casket and all, just like at my grandmother’s wake in my parents’ home.

    Now I grapple with this notion of making death so public, reaching out into the social megaverse, far beyond any place one might “socialize” in what I consider “real” life. There seems to be a need to overcompensate for how we’ve buried death, dying and all its ugly truths for so long in our “American culture.” To be clear, I vehemently disagree with the late icon Helen Thomas, who like me, was raised (Greek) Orthodox (it is the same faith) on at least one fundamental point. A first-generation American like me, she proclaimed: "We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people." I have always proudly been and hope will always be, a Russian-America, a Ukrainian-American, a Polish-American, a Russian- Ukrainian-Polish-American, a Slavic-American. To me, the hyphen is not divisive, it is defining. I feel as strongly about “hiding” death. I have no problem with cremation as a person’s choice, but not displaying the body to family and loved ones before the cremation seems unnatural, if not inhumane, to me.

    Manley’s website is named, though he’s done the opposite. “Today is August 15, 2013. Today is my 60th birthday. Today is the last day of my life. Today, I committed suicide. Today, is the first day this site is active, but it will be here for years to come.” He goes on, in detail, for some 750 words to explain why, closing (if you will) with a link for those “coping with suicide.” We know, in his own words, why he killed himself. What’s left to wonder is why he chose to blog about it, clearly hoping, if not knowing, it would go viral. Maybe spending a career “dealing with sports statistics,” drove him to finally be the news, instead of playing a back office role contributing data for bookies and gamblers.

    My personal feelings about suicide aside (I am not here to overshare), Manley’s post has impacted, if not distressed me, more than other similar social media calls for attention. NPR's Scott Simon live-Tweeting his mother's death on July 28 disturbed me, but not because of the details he shared. It made me wonder, once again, how I fit into the social hyperverse, considering I never felt I fit into the pre-social one.

    Are Manley and Simon crying for help, attention, something they can’t find offline or without widespread attention? They are not sociopaths like Derek Medina, the 31-year-old Florida man who posted a picture of his wife, Jennifer Alfonso's bloody splayed out on the kitchen floor to his Facebook feed with a note. "Im (sic) going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife love you guys miss you guys takecare (sic) Facebook people you will see me in the news," he wrote, according to investigators.

    Then there’s Seattle humor writer Jane Lotter, who died last month of cancer, who wrote her own obit, which went viral and made The New York Times. “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary,” she wrote, before dying at home alongside her husband and children, thanks to Washington’s Death with Dignity Act.

    I grapple with social media in general, how to use it and why I am using it. I have to promote articles I write for my primary job both on Facebook and Twitter, and I use Facebook largely to post photos of my son and to watch my friends’ children grow up across the country and the world. I’m not sure I will ever understand why people use social media to gain massive attention for being among the first to expose the immediate impact of watching someone die, dealing with killing someone or themself. In a social universe, we become so much more isolated, relating less and less in what I consider a personal way. I fear this loss of real connections with people when we need them most is spurring a seismic shift in our society. I am also heartened that people recognize the need to reach out as a means for coping with traumatic experience, and hope it might eventually return to a world with where we can welcome people into our parlour, whatever that means.


    Welcome, Natasha.  I read about Martin Manley on Romanesko today and I've been obsessing about him for hours now.  I posted a comment about it on Another Trope's blog before I read your piece, and now I'm finding more to think about after reading what you have to say about it.

    I confess I felt uneasy reading Manley's blog pages, as if I were reading a long, long suicide note not meant for me--even though it was very much for me and anyone else who got there via a dozen different routes.  I have never understood these posthumous cries for attention.  It's not family and friends who are sharing a life in order to make it more meaningful, it's the one who has died.  He wants us to understand him now, when it's too late.  It doesn't matter anymore.

    I remember my dad telling me about the professional mourners the Italians would hire in order to make it look like there were many more people who cared for the dead family member.  They were women dressed from head to toe in black and the louder they wailed, the better.  But they were always the same wailers so nobody in their Italian neighborhood was fooled by their show.  Still, they appeared at nearly every funeral, apparently because it wouldn't be a funeral without them.

    We do have the need for public show when someone we care about dies.  I feel differently than you about showing bodies, however.  I'm always happier if I don't have to pass an open casket, where I tend to be critiquing the makeup job when I should be wishing this dear one a fond farewell.

    I much prefer the small, private farewells, like the one we pulled off for my beloved sister-in-law last summer.  She wanted a Viking funeral and that is what she got.  Family members came up to our island from as far away as Arizona and we placed some of her ashes on a toy wooden sailboat, set it afire and sent it out into the bay where it was surrounded by hundreds of flowers.  The sun was setting, casting a rose glow, and it was an event none of us will ever forget.  Other family members, however, weren't pleased when they heard what we had done.  They thought it was sacrilege, even though my sister-in-law had told us all in no uncertain terms that if we didn't give her a Viking funeral on that particular bay at sunset she would come back to haunt us.

    I have never been to a wake in a home, but I think it would be a lovely thing to be part of.  Much more satisfying than a post on Facebook or Twitter.

    Thank you, Ramona, for your warm welcome and your very thoughtful response. Your sister-in-law's sendoff sounds remarkable, and it's a shame that others who weren't there to appreciate it would scoff at it. I respect everyone's last wishes, and I come from a culture where they are always planned out (and paid for) in advance, so as to not further burden those who are grieving. I'm not sure I will ever come around to appreciating even social media mourning, where people post elaborate comments about their lost loved ones. I think it is essential (for me at least) to always remember and keep sacred (in whatever way is meaningful, whether secular, religious or just private) the day when someone you love died. For me, there is always an intense period of emotional outpouring ahead of those days, especially my dad's. I do not think that will ever change, and I do not want it to. As much as I may post a quick comment, along with a photo of a special meal, I have little interest in engaging even a small group of people who never met him. The notion of taking your own death public with the desire to go viral is so alien to me, and certainly nothing I can ever imagine embracing. Social media is still so nascent, and I wonder if the actions of Manley, Simon and Lotter will become seminal, even normative. I can only hope we find a way to progress in real time, and that people who didn't come from cultures that openly discuss and respect death and dying will be able to communicate effectively with the people who really need to hear what they feel. Like you said, Manley "wants us to understand him now, when it's too late. It doesn't matter anymore." I am perplexed by how much people who seek the instantaneous reaction also expect it to be eternal beyond the underworld of cached pages. Thanks again, Ramona.

    Good post.  Gave me lots to think about.

    I personally knew Martin Manley. And if you personally knew him, you would get it and understand. And by the way, he was an amazing data/stats analyst who could turn numbers into meaningful words. Your quote, "Maybe spending a career 'dealing with sports statistics,' drove him to finally be the news, instead of playing a back office role contributing data for bookies and gamblers." is offensive to anyone who works in a news sports department. Manley created the NBA's current efficiency index. You might want to Google that. 

    I'm sure Natasha meant no disrespect.  Maybe you could help us understand Martin Manley's actions since you knew him.  It is an intriguing mystery to the rest of us. 

    Dear Anonymous, I have worked in multiple newsrooms, and have known and worked closely with many people in various sports departments. I've also done reams of agate myself, a requirement for every editor on the news desk in the early part of an AP career. I meant no offense. I have read about Manley's background. Despite any achievements, awards or accolades, a career in this industry can still be demoralizing, even for the most accomplished.

    Nice to see you here, Natasha! I'm not sure that social media is changing peoples' fascination with public death--sensational suicide is not new--but it certainly facilitates it.

    The piece reminds me of a related experience that I had with the loss of a friend. He was my wife's colleague. When he died suddenly, his many friends in her department were devastated. Unable to attend his funeral overseas, they created a facebook group in his memory. It served as a virtual wake; people wrote in to share their memories and voice their sorrow.

    It was a beautiful and poignant expression of loss--at first. The only trouble was that websites do not expire. Most mourning rituals have time constraints. Jewish law, for example, prescribes a precise schedule: 7 days of intense mourning, 23 days of moderate mourning, and for children of deceased parents, 11 additional months of milder mourning. After that, people are only permitted to mourn the deceased on the anniversary of the death. While I don't advocate such a rigid schedule, the time limits serves a purpose. We have to move on.

    The facebook group had no such limits of course. Months after this man's death, I received email messages from people telling him (i.e. the group) how much they missed him. They became harder and harder for me to read. Ultimately, I unsubscribed from group, which felt disloyal. Perhaps it continued to serve a need for those who stayed in the group, but I wonder. I suspect that time-constrained mourning rituals are not designed to release us from devotion so much as to obligate us to let our loved ones go.

    PS Jewish funeral rites are so lame. When I go, I want a bacchanal in my honor. Maybe skip the open casket though. Just stand my ashes on the bar.

    Thanks, Michael. I know sensational suicide isn't new. I was in Amherst, Mass., town center the day Gulf War protestor Gregory Levey, burned himself to death on the town common in 1991. The difference is that now anyone's suicide can become a national news story, using social media as a vehicle to go viral. In 1991, few people outside of the Happy Valley (Hampshire County, Mass.) had even heard about Levey's self-immolation, and Levey's dad was married to Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. I think what troubles me is how people use social media to "go viral," even if it's to get traffic for a *news* article they've written by using a sensational headline that is in no way supported by the article text. I struggle every day professionally with this phenomenon of marketing maven savvy trumping anything with meaning or resonance and the breakdown of editorial quality. The idea of someone treating their own death like that kind of story is difficult for me to comprehend at an emotional and intellectual level. I hear you on the Facebook memorial outliving it's intention and creating an awkward and uncomfortable situation for users who appreciated it when it was timely, even necessary. I cringe every time I get an update, months, even three years in one case, after I've signed some online guest book on an obit page. I can only imagine what emotional impact a visceral condolence that pops up in your inbox, long after the initial sting of death and loss, must have on the people closest to the deceased. Cheers to your bacchanal, in life and after.

    What I find most disconcerting about Facebook and Tweets is the banality of it, the endless parade of the trivial details of the poster's life. As I read section after section of Manley's site that is what came to mind.

    Thoreau said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation...." I don't think that's so. Most people live ordinary, boring, trivial lives and, perhaps surprisingly, are quite happy to do so. I'm one of them. The story of my life would be boring if I were to take the time to write an autobiography.

    Manley lived an ordinary, boring, trivial life.Harsh I guess, and we're taught not to critique the dead. But Manley killed himself for the sole purpose of getting strangers to read the stories of his ordinary life and discuss it.

    90% of his site, excluding the small part explaining the reason's for his suicide, was nothing more than stories of his life and his interests. It all could have been posted without the suicide, but no one but his friends would have read it. No one but a friend would have cared. He committed suicide to get people to read what no one would have read but for the suicide.

    Really, I don't mean to be so harsh. I have many of those same trivial stories that no one but a friend would care about. Manley tells a couple of stories about how he met his wives. The women I married first noticed me because of some adolescent sarcastic comments I made at some high school marching band competition  that made her laugh. Manley's favorite musician is James Taylor. I suppose mine is John McLaughlin. He lists his favorite movies. I could list mine.

    I don't expect you to care that I like McLaughlin absent some interesting analysis of his music. Or that I like Groundhog Day.  The story of that girl who became my wife because she found me funny is really quite boring. I don't expect you to care.

    Manley was likely a nice guy, a good friend to his friends, kind to dogs and cats and little children. But for some reason he does care that complete strangers read the ordinary trivial stories of his life and his likes and dislikes. He cared enough that complete strangers hear his story that he killed himself to get them to his site.

    And that's something I don't think I'll ever understand.



    Hi ocean-kat,

    Thanks for your comment. I was thinking of Walden when I wrote this, as I often do when I think of death and dying in general. I agree with you, and think that some of the most content, emotionally stable, and dare I say *happy,* people I know do live life quietly and not in the quest of fame as defined by public recognition or appreciation.

    I laugh when I think of people who write biographies, as some of the most banal I've ever met have penned their own. *shakes head*

    That said, I do understand why people seek widespread recognition for their creative or scientific work, or any meaningful pursuit that leaves a legacy by virtue of some quality of greatness, whether that's tapping into and articulating something new yet universal or discovering something that alters (and improves) life for others. But so very few and rare are the people who have any chance of ever achieving such greatness. The Internet lets us believe otherwise, and this notion that if something goes viral it becomes meaningful disgusts me. My father repeatedly reminded me: "Tash, life is 99% disappointment. If you can accept that, you may be able to be happy." Too many people want only to be happy, yet they do little in that pursuit. In a hypersocial world, too many falsely believe that if a lot of people just read about or watch a video of something they've said or done they are *famous,* and therefore must be happy. This I cannot comprehend.

    There's also the sense of entitlement, regardless of where someone falls on the banality scale. What's worse is when the banal believe they are better than others and end up hurting other people (the only ones who care about them) as they take drastic action just to draw attention to their "ordinary, boring, trivial lives." As Erskine says in Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Mr. W. H.: "You forget that a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it."


    This is a very heavy topic to start off with, Natasha. Congratulations and I'm glad that we've moved from friends of friends to colleagues.

    Social Media, despite its name, has made life pretty socially awkward. The pressure is to say anything and everything and you don't really get to feel the response of others the way you would normally. A friend of mine said that the world may be insane but it may actually be less crazy than in the past - in this day and age, we simply see everything.

    Just ran across this recent article which amazingly seems to address some of the points in both your post and the post directly previous on DAG by "Another Trope":

    The Real Reason Why So Many People Overshare on Facebook, by Paul Hibert, republished by Slate from Pacific Standard Magazine, Aug. 19.

    While I'm usually not a big fan of short-form sociology via pop media, the author does seem to point to some thought-provoking theorizing that might be worth pursuing in more detail.

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