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Farhad Manjoo: Is Facebook the right place to announce a death in the family?
Emily Yoffe: I'm Emily Yoffe, Slate's Dear Prudence advice columnist.
Farhad: I'm Slate's technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, and this is Manners for the Digital Age.
Emily: Today's question comes from a woman who has been feeling some pressure to share very personal news on Facebook. She writes, "Dear Emily and Farhad, my mother died recently and some friends have expressed shock that I didn't announce this on Facebook. I see their point that this would make sure everyone knows, but somehow I just can't stand the thought of my mother's death up there with everyone's coffee break and workplace complaints and links to funny animal videos. I've seen other death announcements on Facebook and didn't find it inherently offensive or anything. I just can't bring myself to use that medium to talk about my mother's death. Are my friends right to suggest that if you have a Facebook account you're supposed to make sure it reflects all the important things happening in your life?" Signed, A Private Mourner
Alright Farhad, what do you think?
Farhad: I think her friends are wrong. If you have a Facebook account, you don't have to make sure it reflects everything in your life, especially this sort of really personal and awful news. You can share it with people in more private ways. I think at some point she may want to talk about it on Facebook, but if she never wants to talk about it on Facebook, I think that's perfectly okay.
Emily: We agree. There's a convention that reports of death are not released to the wider public until the next of kin has been notified. I actually, in my Dear Prudence Column, get quite a few e-mails from people who have heard about deaths and felt, "Whoa, wait a minute. I needed to get a phone call from someone. I heard about this secondhand from some Facebook friend about a death of a friend, or a death in the family."
I really think news like this needs to be reported. That's why there are telephone chains. People who need to know should know first, and this woman has no obligation to deal with this on Facebook, obviously.
I think she's right. That doesn't mean that people who find solace in putting it on Facebook and hearing tributes from other people are in the wrong. I know that Facebook has served a wonderful function in that way, and mourners have gotten terrific anecdotes or tributes that they only would have heard through Facebook. But if you want to keep it private, keep it private.
Farhad: So one thing that I think that people can do if they want to announce this sort of news, but not announce it to everyone, to the whole world, Facebook has this pretty useful feature called Lists, which allows you to designate your friends and add them into various categories. I have one for family, and one for people from work, and one for college friends. You can create a circle that's just five or ten people who are your closest friends who you might want to send this news to, and it doesn't then have to go out to everyone.
Emily: That's a good point, but then the obligation is on the person to be constantly managing the page. I love the idea of little corrals of "I'll friend you, but I actually don't like you and don't want you to know anything that's going on in my life."
But it's true, if you do that then you could have a friends and family thing where you feel more comfortable announcing such things as your mother's death. But again, it puts the onus on the person to have created all these categories and be managing them. While you're in mourning you don't have any obligation.
Farhad: No, I agree. It is actually kind of a pain, and the interface is not very good for doing it. But every time I accept a new friend request, I put people in categories. Most of the people who friend me on Facebook are people I've never met, who are just seeing me online and adding me, and they're all in a special category.
Emily: Friends I don't know.
Farhad: Friends I don't know. I think it's called something like that; it's called people I don't know.
Emily: Alright Farhad, so the bottom line is death is not a status update, and no one is obligated to post the death of a loved one on Facebook.
Farhad: I agree, and don't chide your friends for not posting everything about what happens in your life on Facebook. Some things are meant to be private.
Emily: Absolutely. Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to facebook.com/digitalmanners.
Emily: And we'll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.