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Social Science: The Death Network

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<i>Social Science</i>: The Death Network

When an old friend from my teenage years died suddenly a couple of years ago, I suddenly saw a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in years. The memorial service felt a lot like the saddest reunion possible. And in addition to the passing reconnections with people I had almost forgotten about, I re-discovered some old friends, people I used to be close to, but had drifted away from. Two friends in particular, who had also been close to the friend who died, suddenly became much bigger parts of my life again. We all held onto each other, figuratively and literally, partly as a way to keep our departed friend close, and partly because going through a trauma together forges iron-solid bonds.

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It’s been three years now, but the marked shift in our relationship that was precipitated by tragedy hasn’t faded—and now there’s science to back up this sad, sweet thing we’ve experienced.

Researchers were able to use tangible data about how often people interact on Facebook to track the ripple effects a death can have on a network of friends and loved ones. We’ve seen this happen anecdotally time and again—after a death, loved ones come together in shared mourning and often forge new bonds or solidify old ones—but now the phenomena has been studied for the first time – using Facebook. In addition to changing the way we interact, social networking sites like Facebook also make it easier to track the way social groups grow and change.

For an article published in Nature Human Behavior this spring, researchers collected anonymized statistics on 15,129 Facebook friend networks that had lost someone and a control group of 30,258 that hadn’t. They measured interactions within the networks using comments, posts, and photo tags, and divided the Facebook friends of the deceased into “close friends” and “acquaintances” based on how frequently they’d interacted with each Facebook friend while alive.

In the month immediately after a death in a friend group, close friends of the deceased interacted with each other about 30% more than usual, and with acquaintances of the deceased about 15% more. Researchers also measured interactions between friends of the deceased and people who were not connected the deceased, to see whether the increased interaction was universal (whether people in mourning just use Facebook more), or if the increase was limited to interactions between those people who were mutually grieving. The researchers did not find any increase in interaction between people who were grieving and their friends who were not also part of the network that had lost a friend, meaning that it wasn’t just increased Facebook use during mourning, but increased interactions with people who were also mourning the same loss.

The sharp increase in interaction between mutual close friends of the deceased quieted down after about a year, and interaction between close friends and the deceased and acquaintances of the deceased lessened over a few months. But, remarkably, even two years after a death, in both combinations, interactions remained about 3% higher than before the death, or in the comparison groups.

Facebook interactions, of course, do not exactly mirror real-life interactions, but they do offer an interesting, standardized birds-eye view into how friend groups grow and change, ebb and flow, and respond to loss. And having the research to back up my personal experience is comforting; it makes it easier to believe that out of the tragedy of our mutual friend’s passing, my newly-close-again friends and I have walked away with something lasting.

Top photo by Pixabay, CC0


Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.

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