Steve Mullen: For MUW students, tangible grief in cyberspace

January 20, 2010 10:00:00 AM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


The wildly popular film "Avatar" takes us to the fictional alien planet Pandora, a place where all the plants and animals are bound, synoptically, as if the planet forms a single brain. Essentially, a leaf doesn''t fall off a tree without the rest of the planet knowing about it. When an animal dies, it lives on -- or at least its essence does, there for all the other creatures to plug in and relive its presence. 


The concept isn''t alien at all. Spiritual considerations aside, technology has certainly connected all of us, in a practical way. Social media joins all of us who have plugged in through an online profile on Facebook or other popular sites. Facebook''s 350 million users are all connected to one another; some more than others, depending on who their friends are, or what applications they''re using on the site. 


Most users share bits of their lives on Facebook; most bits happy, some not so. But I''m constantly surprised how many users use the site as a virtual shoulder to cry on, sharing their feelings in times of real tragedy. 


Within a day of Saturday''s tragic hotel fire outside Birmingham, Ala., that killed four Mississippi University for Women students, special pages dedicated to their memories were set up. Soon, hundreds of friends, classmates and family members had joined them and were sharing memories and leaving messages -- in many cases, speaking directly to the victims. 


Such pages are not a novelty, but have become an expected part of the grieving process. When young people are touched by tragedy, they seek out these groups. 


"I never thought I''d be joining an R.I.P. group for my cousin," one person wrote on a page devoted to one of the students. 


There are certainly hundreds, and probably many thousands, of R.I.P. groups on Facebook. Search the site for "RIP" and you''re only told you''re found more than 500 results, but one could scroll through the list of such groups for hours. Accompanying each is a face, sometimes of a celebrity like Michael Jackson, but more often a snapshot of a "regular" person. Attached to each image -- too often the face of a teen or twentysomething -- is a group of people remembering their friend, child, co-worker or relative. 


Do these virtual grieving spaces mark an end of spirituality? Are the intensely personal messages left on the pages that speak directly to the deceased, meant as a replacement for prayer? Definitely not, judging by the number of posts that call upon God''s strength, recite Bible verses, or rely on other messages of faith. 


But they''re certainly a virtual expression of faith. They represent another type of prayer, sent up not with hands clasped, but resting on a keyboard -- clutching not a Bible, but a cell phone. I imagine the messages are written mostly alone, and clearly during emotional reflection. And they offer the sender comfort -- they know their message is certain to be heard, by all who have joined virtually together to help burden the grief. 


Social media is "an extension of a human need," Anthony J. Rotolo, a social media strategist and adjunct professor at Syracuse University, said in an article in Worchester (Mass.) Telegram, exploring this need to share tragedy on sites like Facebook. "It''s best used when people feel connected ... the way people connect is social." 


In the case of the young women whose lives on earth ended so tragically on Saturday, the pages are a testament to the lives they touched, and to those touched by them. 


These messages may only be data stored on a server somewhere. But to those who share in them, and have found themselves touched by them, their impact could not be more real. 


Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.