It’s a whole new life in the times of social media. And it’s a whole new death too. Actress Sridevi’s sudden, untimely demise due to accidental drowning in a hotel bathtub in Dubai last month triggered a barrage of reactions and opinions on digital media — ranging from collective shock, heartfelt grief, deep respect to ugly speculation, cruel jokes, dirty slander. There was also anger, disgust and moral outrage at how the demise was treated like a morbid spectacle by the media, and became a topic for warped online humour.
Death is one of the deepest and most common fears that grip the human mind, consciously or sub-consciously. This fear and grief around death led generations of humans in all cultures to develop certain codes of conduct and rules and rituals around it. However, in the age of technology, the discourse around death is undergoing significant changes. For the ‘Facebook generation’, there are shifts in the idea of death — some things have changed, some still remain inviolate. But if technology has the power to change the way we view death — the much-feared, ultimate human truth — where are we headed in terms of our emotional quotient?
Death used to be a time for sympathy, sensitivity, empathy. Even if the departed were someone not close or much loved, people maintained a certain decorum during such times. But now, this period of loss and grief is not spared the sting and barb of trolls — reflecting an unapologetic insensitivity, an accepted streak of cruelty.
Actor Tannishtha Chatterjee says, “It’s beyond me why some people troll at all. There should be no place for trolling or trying to gain Internet points in the face of tragedy. But what’s more important is to not blame social media as a whole, and try to look at ourselves — look within you — and think, what have we become?”
She feels social media is steadily becoming a platform for people to unleash their malice and be the worst version of themselves. “It’s only because you can say whatever you feel like and still stay anonymous. What have we, homo sapiens, done to the planet? Imagine the hatred and grudge one must hold against people, for it to make its way to 140 characters. It’s not the medium that must be blamed, but also people. Social media allows people to spread their venom,” she says.
However, social media expert Raju Singh Rathore feels people have always been vicious in their own ways. “With the advent of social media, people are doing the same thing. Being anonymous and trolling is an extension of backbiting and gossiping. It has taken an uglier form because people have lost the fear of being caught, but it is very much an innate human trait.”
While the bad and the ugly side of human behaviour comes to the fore on the social media platform vividly to be ignored, there’s no overlooking the good side.
In times of loss, this is the platform to bare one’s heart and reach out to the support community, like Janhvi Kapoor posted an emotional tribute to her mother Sridevi on Instagram and Boney Kapoor’s account of what happened that night was revealed in his friend, Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahata’s blog.
Actor Shreyas Talpade says, “The next generation is digitally aware and it has probably become a way of life for them. Some people feel comfortable posting their emotions on social media, because that is what they have gotten used to. It is about an individual perceiving what he/she thinks is right or wrong, and we should let them be and let people grieve the way they wish to,” adding, “Janhvi lost her mother at such a young age. If she felt like pouring her heart out on social media, I don’t find anything wrong in it. Every celebrity is vulnerable, be it actors, or directors — everyone has emotions. Losing a parent or a partner is such a sudden thing that most people don’t know how to react to it. And at that point in time, if someone finds peace in posting it on social media, then so be it. As long as sharing one’s thoughts and feelings makes one feel better, why shouldn’t one? If Janhvi feels that there are ten thousand people who want to know what the family is feeling, then I don’t think there is anything wrong with what she did.”
However, along with heartfelt messages on social media also come the conspiracy theorists — those who enjoy speculating, irrespective of whether their conjectures are about something tragic, or impinging on another’s privacy.
Often the death of a celebrity makes conspiracy theorists sharpen their claws, and they blatantly and unhesitatingly make public their conjectures — even if it borders on the ridiculous, and smacks of malicious glee. Is there no need for an ethical screening? Or is everything acceptable for the sake of freedom of expression on social media — even salacious and voyeuristic conjectures about someone’s death?
Psychologist Akshay Kumar feels there should be some sort of ethical screening. “Ethical screening has to be done very carefully till the standardised contexts and policies are in place but this screening could easily convert into moral policing. A particular group of people who are powerful (like in Saudi Arabia), control what is expressed according to their convenience in the name of moral screening. Everything is not acceptable for the sake of freedom of expression on social media, and especially not conjectures about someone’s death. There is a certain line that should not be crossed. And a basic humaneness should not be forgotten.”
Moral screening is very tricky business, feels author Ayush Gupta, and according to him the key problem would be jurisdiction. “Who polices somebody based on morals? Whose morals? And how far does the policing go? The behaviour modification doesn’t come from outside censorship, but social unacceptability of such behaviour. We, as a people, are to be blamed for being voyeurs consuming the conjectures and conspiracy theories — and conspiracy theories have existed even without the help of social media, which is just a tool. You take a hammer and bash somebody’s head in, or you take it and fix something — it’s up to you, the person who is wielding it.”
Motivational speaker and life coach, Ravneet Gandhok shares that in this age of digitalisation, we meet people and react to events not physically but through different social platforms. “The sudden death of Sridevi aroused innumerable reactions from almost every individual of the nation.”
The power to present the viewpoint on digital platforms gave rise to speculations, trolls, open letters and what not. Her demise was dreadful but people’s reactions made it more awful. Individuals were blaming her husband for her death and also assuming other things. Just imagine the state of the family who had lost their family member suddenly, but nobody was sparing them. This is the real face of digitalisation, which on one hand gives one the freedom to express, and on the other, takes away your freedom too,” she says.
IS IT REALLY DEATH?
A study proved that humans devote about 30-40 per cent of all speech to talking about themselves, but online that surges to about 80 per cent of social media posts. With that kind of information shared online, how much of a person’s life remains online even after they are physically gone from the world? While actors, authors and artists continue to live through their work, common people too now live through the videos, pictures and posts they captured and put up.
A person’s social media profile can become anything from a space for tributes, to abuse and even haunting for those close to that person. Are social media accounts keeping people alive even after they are gone? What is death really if a person continues existing in this fashion?
While Sridevi and Stephen Hawking, who passed away recently, will continue to live through their exceptional work, the same might not be true for common people. Author Ayush Gupta says, “When it comes to the dead, I believe that much like their writings, their life’s work, their photographs, recorded videos, etc, social media accounts too are vestiges of a person that once was. To accord it the status of a person’s consciousness is to give it inordinate importance.”
Psychologist Megha Goyal Jain agrees, “Once the person is gone, he/she is literally gone. The social handles will slowly fade away. Death is when you are no more physically. The departed soul stays in hearts and thoughts of well wishers — nothing more than that.”
However, death is mostly about those who remain behind and have to deal with the death of the departed. One of the questions they face is about when and how to break the news on digital platforms.
THE DIGITAL DILEMMA
People take their own time to open up online about the death of a close one and often they have reservations about this sharing. Psychologist Rashi Ahuja says, “Social media is a medium where people often share their feelings openly. Likes, comments, shares have become indicators, which more often than not, validate an individual’s feelings. It takes strength and courage to openly share your feelings in front of so many people. The moment you share, you are making yourself vulnerable to criticism, judgments and opinions.”
She adds, “While most people now turn to social media to even share their feelings of grief post losing a loved one, a number of people still choose to remain private about such matters. Some of the reasons why people may choose to not discuss this is because firstly, it is a sensitive matter; secondly, it disrupts the grieving process (several studies indicate that people who grieve online tend to be less in touch with their ‘real’ feelings); thirdly, sharing information online exposes one to the threat of being subjected to others’ opinions, which a person may not be wanting to encounter at this particular stage of loss; fourthly, some people refrain from sharing such information online to avoid pity from people; and lastly, undoubtedly, a lot of people could be too emotionally overwhelmed to even turn to the internet.”
Ayush Gupta feels that we don’t associate social media with the dignity we accord the so-called old-fashioned ways of human interaction. “Reservations about sharing anything about a death on social media might be due to the fact that people fear it trivialises the memory of a loved one. In comparison to most posts on social media, something like death might feel out-of-place. But then, when people do open up, you have those rare moments when it just connects people — even strangers.”
Does one keep the profile after death as a reminder, a charity fund-raiser, a tribute or get rid of it? Can there be one-size-fits-all answer to a matter as delicate as death? It is said that soon Facebook will be a huge graveyard as the users lie in a certain age bracket. Social media expert Raju Singh Rathore says, “There is no point in keeping the profiles for common people, as the outreach is limited and the profile is ultimately forgotten except for a very few people. However, in case of people who worked for the community or celebrities, such pages might lead to some positive discussions and charity.”
Psychologist Aditi Vyas agrees, “Facebook is just a social platform, it is just a profile. Keeping a profile intact does not serve as a reminder or tribute. Perishability is nature’s law, so let this also perish.”
However, author Ayush Gupta feels the option, surely, must lie with the family of the deceased. He says, “If turning a profile into a tribute anchors the grief of family and friends, I think that’s one of the better uses for a Facebook profile, isn’t it?”
(Inputs from Nirtika Pandita and Kavi Bhandari)