A Death on Facebook

How social media portrays mortality

Two Saturdays ago, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through Nepal, resulting in widespread damage to infrastructure, irreparable harm to historical sites, and, most tragically, the deaths of thousands and thousands of human beings.

Such an event should inspire mourning and contemplation—sorrow for the people who lost their lives and gratitude for the lives that we still have.

Instead, in the aftermath of the tremors, a different sort of behavior rose up from the rubble. News outlets ran reports of individuals—some tourists and some Nepalese citizens—stopping in front of destroyed buildings for quick selfies.

Here was one sort of earthquake response: Survey the tragic scene, take a smiling photo, and then skip off in the opposite direction.

If social media glorifies life—capturing our most intimate moments and recording our funniest jokes—then it does the opposite for death.


In Nepal, the pressure of social media gave users an incentive to turn a deep and wide human tragedy into a shallow snapshot.

To a certain degree, you can blame the photographers. A tactful person should have enough respect to avoid behavior that reduces a death into a tagged detail.

Yet a larger, and more disconcerting, criticism of the selfie-behavior that emerged out of the Nepal earthquake has to do with the nature of social media itself.

By displaying nothing more than instances of frivolity, by encouraging users to disguise themselves inside a sunny-beach persona, social media prevents the acknowledgement of deeper emotions, such as grief.   

Against a background of party photos and emojis, mortality loses all of its defining gravitas. The deceased become abject and even absurd—they simply can’t coexist with this sepia-tinted world in which every comment is an inside joke.

Put it this way: There is nothing more unsettling than the Facebook profile of a dead teenager.

I think the uneasy feeling derives from the lightheartedness of the content that dominates any social media platform. There are airy “lol” comments; there are witty photo captions.

There is rarely, if ever, a reminder that this person—this very same smiling person—is fragile enough to die.

How can you reconcile social media’s giddy artificiality with death’s stone-cold reality? How can you connect a corpse to a profile picture?

I’d like to provide an answer, but I sense these questions are rhetorical—Facebook simply lacks the tools to chronicle death.


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