Below are the primary academic research questions that this project explores.
1) What kinds of relationships do online mourning practices give rise to?
Preliminary studies suggest that some people are using digital media to connect with loved ones who have passed away. We want to explore these connections as fully as possible. We're particularly interested in two aspects of online mourning: the time frame of online activities and the potential for intimacy with loved ones who have passed on. First, we're interested in how relations unfold over time. Are they part of a temporary phase of grief, or do they represent an enduring relationship? Second, we're interested in exploring the quality of connections, including their emotional impact on the bereaved.
(2) How does the technology itself mediate the experience of connecting online with a loved one who has passed away?
Digital technologies introduce mediations that are different than those involved in face-to-face communication. How does the specific digital platform shape the experience of connecting with a loved one who has passed away? We're particularly interested in exploring how the technology might contribute to a sense of connection with the dead, as well as where it might compromise the potential for persistence and intimacy in these online relationships.
(3) How do online communities participate in relationships with the deceased?
One of the things that sets online memorialization apart is the distinctive ways in which others are invited to participate in relationships with the deceased. Traditional forms of remembrance such as visiting a gravesite or writing a letter to the deceased are usually done alone. In contrast, websites such as online memorials and social media profiles of the deceased can bring together a community of mourners. Our preliminary research has shown that for some, this online community of users can help animate their individual relationship to the deceased. For others, relationships with the dead are animated by a broader digital public. Still others may feel unsettled by the ease of access to many online materials and look for ways to limit who may participate in online memorialization. How does the involvement or perceived involvement of others affect people's understandings of the relationships that they maintain with the deceased online?
(4) How is grief affected by digital technology?
Technologies of virtual persistence might offer new possibilities for relationships to continue after a loved one's biological death. While earlier models of grief suggested that detaching was a necessary part of the grieving process, many grief experts now teach the value of continuing bonds with the deceased. By seeking to understand the impact of online connections with deceased loved ones, this research has the potential to alter how grief is addressed at the social and individual level.