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The Art of Online Grief

I’ve taken my social media relationships on the road with me this year and long-term travel has accelerated their development. Some people I’ve connected with have become important to me.

Doves above Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon, Rome - Alli Burness

Doves above the tomb of Raphael in the Pantheon, Rome

I knew Hasan Niyazi only online, he was one of my earliest Twitter connections. This year, I came to see him as a guide through Europe. Thanks to Hasan’s encouragement, I have an informed appreciation for Raphael works. I sensed Hasan wasn’t able to travel as much as he’d have liked, and being a fellow Australian, I understand the tyranny of distance (and expense) which comes with being so far from major art and museum hubs. I’ve been happy to structure my journey around Hasan’s advice, taking photographs for him along the way. It’s a pleasure to share my museum visits online, with Hasan or anyone else. It was wonderful that, in return, Hasan was happy to provide insight and information. He supported my Museum Selfies project, donating his own in the first weeks of the site. He had special plans for the photographs and selfies his followers sent him with Raphael works.

But now, Hasan isn’t with us anymore. After managing to move beyond my initial shock at his sudden death, I’ve been assessing my emotional investment in online connections. It seems fitting Hasan’s passing causes me to think about larger, related ideas. Alexandra Korey’s tribute to Hasan describes his insistence on finding a deeper meaning in our work, our ideas, whether or not we want to see them. I think Hasan and I were similar in this way.

Perhaps I care too easily and too much about people I have contact with, be it online or in person? I’d hoped to meet Hasan when I return to Australia. I wanted to tell him how important he’s been this year, to my thinking and learning. I wanted to tell him that he’s shaped this journey which has, in turn, shaped me. It will take a while to accept I can’t, or perhaps this post is my attempt to do so.

I know I’m not the only one grappling with the loss of a friend I never met in person. I’m thinking about our digital connections and their increasing complexity. The intangibility of my friendship with Hasan feels especially strange now, in the lack of a physical person and not knowing the sound of his voice. It’s difficult to accept there isn’t anyone behind the @3pipenet account, no one preparing beautifully professional posts on his blog. Twitter keeps recommending I follow others, based on connections via Hasan. The Internet doesn’t care if a person is no longer alive.

As the avenues to foster connections with others in digital spaces become more sophisticated, those relationships are inevitably becoming more complex. These online relationships are having new effects on us. Or at least, they are for me. I’ve taken comfort in the online tributes for Hasan and the longer-term projects proposed in remembrance. I can only smile about a team being established to carry on Hasan’s work; multiple people to continue the work of one man. But we were initially at a loss as to how to mark his passing. I’ve always found funerals to be an important step in the process of acceptance, but there isn’t an online parallel.

I’ve been trying to find research about the psychological impacts of digital relationships and have been struck by how much is negatively framed from the outset. Internet addictions, online bullying, pornography – digital relationships are still billed by many as threatening, unhealthy and shallow. For some of us, we’re navigating digital relationships which have become complex, dynamic and nuanced while for others, these kinds of relationships remain easily dismissed, considered curious or improbable.

I’ve been thinking about Scott Simon, the US radio personality, who in July this year tweeted his emotional journey through his mother’s final days. His ability to convey his grief and his mother’s approach to her own passing was gripping and moving. His tweets left me in no doubt he needed to share and Twitter was the most appropriate way for him to process. It was grief, recorded in public and digital form. This was challenging for some to understand, who felt it was inappropriate and unhealthy. Another thought is the recent Horse e-Books revelations which also indicates a new level of complexity in our online relationships. The long running Twitter account seemed to genuinely be an automated spam-bot, one uncannily and poetically echoing the eccentricities of human life. How can a real person consistently fake being someone else, let alone a bot? How could so many grieve for a faked bot (like here and here)? It seems proof to me that our emotional connections are changing in unprecedented ways.

Can our human minds and hearts adapt quickly enough to handle these digital relationships? I know ‘intangible relationships’ have happened in ages past, through letters and chance contacts maintained with pen and paper only. But the more online connections we have, the more time we invest in these relationships, the ever-increasing hours we spend online, the more these relationships will mean to us emotionally. We’re going to struggle far more frequently with relationships marked by their absence of the flesh but which mean more to us than ever before. I know some feel the digital world is one they inhabit already, where they feel ‘native’, where they never want to leave. For many, this is our future. If so, should we find a way, an online cultural process, to mark someone’s death? Can we help ourselves and the Internet understand someone online has died? Can we help our minds and hearts process these intangible relationships a little more easily?

In the meantime, I’ve found a way to mark Hasan’s passing in the physical world. In my final 24 hours in Europe, on Sunday, 17 November, I’m planning a whirlwind hit on the Prado to view their Raphael works. I’ll continue my habit of visiting art for Hasan, precariously scheduled between inter-continental flights. Being with a Raphael is now like being with Hasan. It’s the only physical connection I’ve had with him. I imagine him now sitting with Raphael (having had his many questions finally answered). Now Hasan isn’t holding hands with Raphael through the ages, but quite literally in spirit.

Hasan Niyazi with School of Athens, Raphael

Hasan Niyazi with ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael. Photograph November 2012.

UPDATE: Not only did my final visit to the Prado feel like a farewell to Hasan, but also a farewell to Europe. It’s comforting to feel Hasan was present, even momentarily, at my last European museum for the year. He is still shaping my journey. The only missing element was his warm response to the souvenir I sent him.

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you very, very much for a wonderful tribute. I have reflected of late how some of my new colleagues/friends I have never met and never will meet in person – folks who I have some of my most meaningful conversations. Your post takes that all to the logical conclusion. My best to you.

    16 November 2013
  2. What a beautiful post.

    16 November 2013
  3. What a lovely tribute to your friend. I’ve been surprised by the relationships I’ve formed in this blogging community. It’s a different kind of friendship, but one that I thoroughly enjoy.

    16 November 2013
  4. curatorialassistant #

    Beautifully & thoughtfully written, as always Alli. Penny xxx

    17 November 2013
  5. Beautifully put.

    17 November 2013
  6. Hasret #

    Thank you very much Alli for that moving tribute, to my dear brother, Hasan. It was beautiful to read. I am Hasret his younger sister. I’m trying my best to read and respond to all online tributes. The outpouring of grief, even from people he hadn’t even met – like yourself, has been tremendous and worldwide. This is a very difficult period in my life, but reading these tributes and leaving comments, brings me a sense of peace and comfort. Thank you.

    You write so eloquently and make some really interesting points about grieving online. Writing to me is therapeutic; so expressing myself this way is sometimes easier then talking about how I feel. Maybe the way of the future is to have a site dedicated to celebrating a persons life, where people can post photos, share memories/stories, and generally talk about how they think/feel about that person. In a way collaborating online tributes – but of course open for anyone to contribute. I don’t how this would be done but it would be absolutely amazing.

    Thank you again, I am touched by your sincerity and kindness.

    18 November 2013
    • Hasret,
      I’m touched you found this post and commented. Like you, writing helps me process, and this post has been important to me. I’m glad you’re finding the many online tributes and truly grateful they bring you comfort.

      I’m not sure how a central site to mark a life would work either. As complicated as online grief may be, it will always pale in comparison to the impact on family. My heart goes out to you and your family.

      20 November 2013
  7. I had somehow missed this, in the outpouring of writing at the time. I didn’t realize that much of your “hunt” was spurred by Hasan. He seems to have found something to encourage in each of us.

    18 March 2014
  8. I somehow missed this also–and I did a major doubletake when I saw the “School of Athens” photo! I was with Hasan in Rome (we ran down from Florence for the day)–and I really don’t remember that particular photo op. It was shot either by me or (more likely) Agnes Crawford–unless it really was a selfie in the strictest construction of the term!

    27 March 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Registrar’s Postcard: Prado Museum, Spain | Museum in a Bottle
  2. Mementos of Remembrance: Connecting Us through Art | Museum in a Bottle

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