When it comes to fostering social connectivity and helping people maintain close-knit human bonds, Facebook appears to be a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, previous research has found that excessive use of Facebook exacerbates feelings of perceived social isolation and loneliness under typical, everyday circumstances.
On the other hand, during a crisis, two recent studies report that Facebook social networks can: (1) create a safety net for the bereaved after the death of a loved one; (2) serve a vital role in helping to fortify a sense of community in the aftermath of a catastrophic disaster.
Of course, face-to-face interactions are always going to be an essential part of maintaining the social fabric of "real world" communities and any wholehearted, intimate relationship. That said, social scientists from Boston and Menlo Park recently discovered that Facebook social networks provide a surprising level of emotional support during the grieving process after the death of a close mutual friend.
For this study, William Hobbs, a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University's Network Science Institute and visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science, teamed up with Facebook data scientist Moira Burke, who is based in Menlo Park, California. Burke's research bridges computer science, social psychology, and the study of friendship networks in online communities using large-scale computational analysis and Facebook datasets.
Hobbs and Burke's new study, “Connective Recovery in Social Networks After the Death of a Friend," was published online ahead of print April 24 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. This is the first large-scale investigation into resilience and recovery within social networks after experiencing the death of a friend.
Hobbs and Burke used California state vital records to identify recent deaths. They characterized “close friends” as anyone who had interacted directly with the person who died via Facebook in the months before the study began. For the record: To maintain every user's absolute privacy, the Facebook data was aggregated and "de-identified" or “masked” in a way that totally scrubbed any identifiable associations to a specific individual or circle of friends.
The Facebook bereavement data included approximately 15,000 social networks that had mourned the death of a friend in recent months. The study control group of friends who had not experienced a recent death included approximately 30,000 Facebook networks.
After analyzing swaths of FB data, the researchers found that close friends of the deceased immediately increased their interactions with one another by 30 percent in the first few weeks following the death of a mutual close friend. As would be expected, these interactions faded a bit in the following months. But ultimately, communication levels stabilized. It appears that the abyss in the social network caused by the death of a friend fills up again like a tidal pool that ebbs and flows.
Anecdotally, I can corroborate these Facebook “safety net” bereavement findings. Last October, my soulmate Nicole Haran (1969-2016) died at the age of 47. Immediately after Nikki's death, Facebook became a central hub that kept all of her close friends and acquaintances tethered together during the most paralyzing stage of our collective grief, shock, and disbelief.
Within my larger social network of Facebook friends, Nikki was the epicenter of a “two degrees of separation” subset of random people that were her colleagues through the extensive New York theater world—most of whom I’d only met once or twice. My communication with our random mutual Facebook friends dwindled after the period of acute mourning. But, just as Hobbs and Burke had discovered, in the months since, one way all of us continue to keep Nikki's spirit alive is by posting random things that remind us of her in memoriam.
For example, a few days ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “The Neuroscience of Hearing the Soundtracks of Your Life,” which concluded by paying tribute to Nicole Haran. Within an hour of posting this on Facebook (with a tag to Nikki) I’d received dozens of comments from random people within our mutual social network who I hadn’t heard from in months. Additionally, lots of people shared songs that stirred their own autobiographical memories of Nikki, such as "And the Healing Has Begun" by Van Morrison which echoes the sentiment of our collective bereavement process. These songs are like "bonus tracks" or iTunes "deep cuts" in Nicole's "This Is My Life" soundtrack that will now be available for posterity like an online time capsule.
The outpouring of love and kindness via Facebook in memoriam to Nicole over the past few days has made me verklempt. But, it's also been cathartic for everybody within this grieving social network. In a statement, David Lazer, who is a core faculty member in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern said,
"Death is a tear in the fabric of the social network that binds us together. This research provides insight into how our networks heal from this tear over time, and points to the ways that our digital traces can offer important clues into how we help each other through the grieving process."
For what it’s worth, I can anecdotally corroborate the above sentiment based on my experience in the past six months and how Facebook has helped all of us who love and miss Nikki Haran cope with each stage of the grieving process.
There is one important caveat: Hobbs points out that their research didn’t analyze the subjective experience of how people felt emotionally during their mourning period. Hobbs and Burke only looked at "recovery from a death" based on statistics of social media connectivity, which is obviously a limited universe. That being said, Hobbs concludes,"Online social networks appear to function as a safety net. They do so quickly, and the effect persists. There are so few studies on the effect of the death of a friend on a network. This is a big step forward."
Facebook can also help build a sense of community after a natural disaster, according to a 2016 study by researchers from Charles Darwin University. The report by Douglas Paton and Melanie Irons, "Communication, Sense of Community, and Disaster Recovery: A Facebook Case Study," was published in the journal Frontiers in Communication. For this study, Paton and Irons studied the grassroots response to a community Facebook page in the aftermath of a 2013 Tasmanian wildfire.
Paton says this was the first paper of its kind to explore whether people's engagement via Facebook after a catastrophic event could translate into the development of more enduring, functional relationships. The researchers found that in the aftermath of a catastrophic event Facebook (and other social media platforms) can help disseminate critical information and unite people.
Additionally, the researchers found that when people are brought together during a disaster, they often form a strong bond that can last a lifetime. Paton and Irons conclude that reaching out to others and building a sense of community that begins online can accelerate recovery efforts after a disaster, as well as create the blueprints for an enduring local framework in the future.
Because Facebook and Twitter have become so ubiquitous, so quickly—it's easy to forget that every social media platform we use today is still in its infancy. i.e. Facebook was launched by Mark Zuckerberg et al. as a Harvard-only social network in 2004 and didn’t go mainstream until 2007. Twitter was created in 2006. Instagram came on the scene in 2010.
As we all know, social media has become a juggernaut that will inevitably play an increasingly pivotal role in our everyday lives...through the good times, and in times of crisis or bereavement. As with any media technology, it's helpful to have empirical research that pinpoints best practices for optimizing the benefits of social media, while minimizing the downsides.
It's important to remain cognizant of the psychological booby traps of excessive Facebook use—such as exacerbating perceived social isolation and reducing valuable time spent connecting face-to-face with friends and family. That said, during a catastrophe or while grieving the death of a close friend, the latest research suggests that Facebook can play an important role in bringing people together by assembling a dynamic "online social safety net" for all parties involved.
William R. Hobbs, Moira K. Burke. Connective recovery in social networks after the death of a friend. Nature Human Behaviour, 2017; 1: 0092 DOI:10.1038/s41562-017-0092
Douglas Paton, Melanie Irons. Communication, Sense of Community, and Disaster Recovery: A Facebook Case Study. Frontiers in Communication, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2016.00004
Brian A. Primack, Ariel Shensa, Jaime E. Sidani, Erin O. Whaite, Liu yi Lin, Daniel Rosen, Jason B. Colditz, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller. Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010