In the minutes, hours and days after news breaks about the death of a celebrity, something very predictable happens online. Social media becomes awash with people who didn’t personally know the celebrity expressing their grief.
The death of musician Chester Bennington made Digital Humanities Masters student Xinyuan Xu pay attention to this behaviour, called “social media mourning”.
She noticed her friends in China were engaging in social media mourning over Bennington’s death, even those she knew who weren’t his fan, nor of his band Linkin Park.
“I wondered why they and other people did this,” says Xinyuan. “So I sought to understand this behaviour through my research project.
“I’m also trying to understand how social media mourning is perceived by others who do and don’t engage in social media mourning.”
Xinyuan has a few theories already about why people do this. She suggests they either sincerely feel aggrieved about the celebrity’s death and wish to make that known, or see other people posting about the death and want to follow the crowd.
“They might also want to show their sympathy to other social media users and create their ideal self on social media,” she adds.
In studying this behaviour, and perceptions of this behaviour, Xinyuan is collecting and analysing thousands of posts and comments on social media platforms Twitter and Weibo.
“Twitter is known for its flexible user interface and semi-anonymousness, and that can facilitate people to express their condolences online,” Xinyuan explains.
“Twitter users are also more likely to follow users they do not know personally.”
Weibo, she says, has similar functions and features to Twitter. One major difference though is that most Weibo users are Chinese.
Xinyuan also has a survey open for people to share with her why they engage in social media mourning, and what they think of this behaviour.
“I think it will be interesting to see how patterns of behaviour travel and spread across these network of users,” Xinyuan says.
Xinyuan’s English-language survey on social media mourning is available here, and the dual-Chinese/English version of her survey can be found here.
Republished from the ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences