One question that keeps repeating about this phenomena of virtual memorials is that why people do it? I have also included that question in my research dilemmas, but it is beginning to be more and more irrelevant. If you phrase the question in a larger context, it would be why people are gathering together in online environments to mourn and honor? The question itself seems to imply, that this has not happened before. Almost as people would not have searched other people in the time of loss and sorrow, in the time of someone passing away and in the time of honoring the memory of a loved one as part of the process of transferring him/her to the afterworld.
Yesterday I started to read the work of Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). In his book Durkheim explains how a joined disaster/fortune creates collective sentiments and how collectivity increases these sentiments. In other words, people gather together in time of sorrow as well as happiness and these feelings escalate when people are together.
This is exactly the same thing with virtual memorials. They create a sort of hype around and inside them. Feelings can escalate in a very similar way as they did for example around the Finnish elections. My Facebook wall was filled with discussion threads around status updates and I know I wasn’t the only one. Same thing happens in other forums, especially discussion forums of newspapers, where people almost seem to start waging was against each other, despite the fact that the first comment might have been perfectly gentile. *
Of course memorials do not have a similar aggressive feature inside them and people seem to think more what they write. Nevertheless, most of the people I have interviewed are afraid of insulting or inappropriate comments. This is usually why they close theirs pages with a password or moderate the comments.
Virtual interaction has not removed the fact that people can make inappropriate comments even face to face. In the time of sorrow and bereavement person can be very sensitive to different opinions and comments. On the other hand, other people might be afraid saying something wrong and this can lead people not to talk to this bereaving person. Especially in Finland people can be very concerned about saying something wrong. This is why they might prefer saying nothing at all. Facebook gives an opportunity to circle around this problem, since commenting there has a very low threshold, compared to a formal memorial website. Writing a heart (<3) is a very short, non-verbal, silent but affectionate way to give condolence in the time when “there are no words”.
The key element of anthropology is to answer the question why people do what they do and how do they do it? It seems that I need to rephrase that question and elaborate the facts that I am looking from this subject.
*There’s even a saying in Finnish which loosely translates as “stupidity increases in a crowd”.