What is thanatosensitivity and what does it have to do with my community?

If you don’t acknowledge a member’s death, that person’s online contributions may live on, but their memory will quickly fade. Acknowledging death allows your online community to give special consideration to a person’s contributions and bring a sense of closure to the gap that can be left by a member’s passing.

In case you haven’t Googled it already, thanatosensitivity is giving regard to a user’s death when designing technology. In the case of online communities and social technologies, a user’s death can become especially poignant. You likely have a deceased friend or loved one whom you visit from time to time on Facebook or some other social platform. And in today’s uber-connected world, it can be especially important to acknowledge the death of members online, because it may be the only way that your community will learn about the passing of a digital, or real life, friend, as was the case with Anthony Dowdell.

I bring all of this up because I was reading a thread about death in a community manager discussion board, and it got me thinking about my anthropology thesis in college. It was about collective memory and how groups of people create social memories in shared physical spaces, through shared cultural practices, and by recording and exchanging shared texts. While I was conducting my field research for the paper, a member of my family died in a car accident with five other people. As a result of the accident, there was fairly widespread news coverage and a huge outpouring of grief from the community surrounding the individuals involved. The display of collective memory was remarkable, and the community’s struggle with death ended up becoming the primary focus of my research.

Maybe I’ll write more about that later, but the point of all of this is to say that one fundamental aspect of social groups is the need for a process or ritual for acknowledging the death of a member, appreciating their contributions, and saying goodbye. Like visiting deceased relatives in a graveyard, leaving messages to the dead on Facebook walls or interacting with their social media accounts as if they were alive can be cathartic acts that help us accept the deaths of people we care about.

It’s important for community managers to remember that these kinds of rituals are not for the deceased, they are for the living, and they can give surviving members of the community peace of mind about death. They show us that when we inevitably pass, there will be a community that will mourn us, that will miss us, that will be sad to see us go. While it may seem depressing, we are helping our community members accept the most difficult and commonest aspect of our lives: Our deaths.

Of course this makes sense if your family or close friends pass away, but it doesn’t really apply to people who only know each other online? I mean, what does it matter if a Wikipedia contributor or editor dies? What does it matter when one of the users of that online tech support group passes away?

While you might not immediately notice the hole that’s left, it will be there, and when members eventually learn of a contributor’s passing, they will want to send their condolences. It might seem strange that your members would want to do this, but if they are heavily involved in an online community of practice or enterprise social network, digital acquaintances might have an outsized impact on a person’s professional development and career. As a result, your members may want to send condolences to the families of their digital role models.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of crossing the divide and meeting a digital acquaintance in person, you probably got along as if you’d known each other for years. That’s because you did–you just didn’t know them face-to-face. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge online relationships as real relationships, no matter how distant the digital divide may make us feel. Online relationships can be as substantial as those we develop in other contexts and situations. Because of this, it’s just as important to recognize when we’ve lost someone who was close to us digitally.

It’s also just as important for us to let others know when the community has experienced a loss precisely so that everyone has their opportunity to mourn. And that’s where the community manager comes in. Be prepared to announce the death of a member and to memorialize them. Just as you have to advocate for your community members in daily life, you also have to commemorate and celebrate them after. Of course, don’t make a habit of only celebrating members when they die. Be sure to show a little love while they’re still around to appreciate it!

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