For the MySpace Generation, a Different Place to Mourn
My parents’ generation grieved in graveyards. People my age mourn online. Less than 24 hours after the Virginia Tech shootings, as people used our “submit a death” link to send more victim names to my Web site, MyDeathSpace.com, our server crashed. We had just updated to a host that was supposed to be able to handle a much larger daily traffic load, but even that wasn’t capable of containing the surge, which at one point hit 50,000 visitors. We had a dozen of the victim profiles the night of the shootings, often even before major news organizations reported official victim information.
Since December 2005, when I started this site, which links to MySpace profiles of the recently deceased, I’ve come to see firsthand how online mourning is crucial for grieving young people. At Virginia Tech, the magnitude of the tragedy is different from the nearly everyday calamities my Web site registers of young people killed by drunk drivers, involved in gang violence or taking their own lives. But the links to flashanimated, multicolored interactive memorials serve the same important purpose for friends and relatives. Commenting on a deceased friend’s MySpace profile is a lot like group therapy. Friends of the deceased can find some sort of comfort in reading thoughtful messages from others who are equally upset.
I’ve thought a lot about the ease of grieving online as I spend time coding links to the profiles of the recently deceased — often people who are younger than I am at 26. If my friend were to die in another country or another state and I were unable to attend that friend’s funeral, I would find some measure of comfort in visiting their online profile. Many young people seem to feel this way too. I’ve read again and again when visiting the profile of a deceased friend, it is as if that friend’s presence can still be felt. His favorite song is still playing on the profile and his blog is still there, the inside jokes or everyday ramblings easy to access.
Visiting a cemetery, to me, would have the opposite effect. Touching a cold gravestone and reading the etched letters of a close friend’s name seems distant, painful and final. Visiting a deceased friend’s online profile, you might laugh when clicking on photographs, and it might not feel as if your friend is truly gone. A profile is a snapshot that people leave online, a look at what they love and hate and are bored by or find funny at one particular moment. Profiles, on MySpace anyway, can stay up indefinitely unless a family member requests removal. A profile is a good single spot on the Net for people to return to time and again for comfort.
I started my Web site after reading an article about two teenage sisters who were killed by their father. I found MySpace pages for the girls and read the heartbreaking postings by their friends. I wondered how many more MySpace users had died young. After reading of a few more local deaths, I started to notice that the majority of the deaths were the result of automobile accidents and drunk-driving. I founded my site with the hope that it could be an eye-opening experience for teenagers and might save a few lives.
Based on the number of visitors we get per day — between 15,000 and 20,000 unique visitors and more than 200,000 page views — other people are also interested in seeing MySpace pages that function as obituaries.
We have our critics, people who e-mail to say that what we’re doing is morbid or exploitative. We also receive many notes of support. Relatives who have lost loved ones write to say how comments from complete strangers helped in the grieving process. And those who haven’t been directly affected by loss write as well. One mother of three teenagers told me she had found her way to MyDeathSpace and was floored by the number of teens killed in tragic, preventable automobile accidents. She said that she sat her three teens down in front of the family computer and made them click through numerous pages containing deaths of teens the exact same age as her own. She said something along the lines of, “Look how precious life is” and made them promise always to wear their seat belts and never drink and drive.
I no longer look up names of the deceased on MySpace. Just as was the case last week after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, all deaths we link to are submitted to the site — by strangers, friends, acquaintances or even family members. It’s become an automatic reflex for some to mourn the person they’ve lost by connecting with the profile they left behind.