Paper Digital Humanities Australasia 2018

Making Connections Through Collective Grieving: Social Media Mourning on Twitter and Sina Weibo (93)

Xinyuan Xu 1 , Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller 1 , Bernardo Pereira Nunes 2 3
  1. Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia
  2. Dept of Informatics, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  3. Dept of Applied Informatics, Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


We explore the ways in which people use a digital tool - social media - to mourn together. Although previous research into the phenomenon of social media mourning (SMM) has predominantly investigated it in the context of a death within a family unit or a group of friends, we have explored engagement in SMM as a response to a death of a celebrity. Our case study example, on whom we focus exclusively, is Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park, who died on July 20th 2017, at the age of 41. 


Our study examines Twitter and Sina Weibo (henceforth "Weibo"), two micro-blogging platforms with a combined active user-base of 670 million people. Weibo is used (near) exclusively by Chinese-speaking users - Twitter, in turn, in banned in China. Data from these sites enabled us to carry out a comparative analysis into SMM, and to show similarities in behaviours across linguistic and cultural barriers.

Data was collected between late July 2017 and early February 2018. For Twitter, we used hashtags, creating a dataset of over 25,000 tweets. Over 6,600 additional tweets were collected manually. Weibo was harvested using keywords, which resulting in us collecting more than 14,000 posts.

We randomly selected 100 users from both Twitter and Weibo as a representative sample to assess whether those users who posted SMM messages in the days immediately after the death of Chester Bennington had mentioned him or Linkin Park in previous posts, or were still posting about them several months after the fact. We also reviewed the statistics for relevant Google searches to verify whether there was a peak in searches when the news of his death reached the public.

Key Findings

In this paper, we will report on four key findings: Firstly, that although the findings from both platforms are similar, Twitter users are more likely to actively mourn the death of a celebrity by posting on social media. Secondly, that Twitter users were more likely to self-identify as being emotionally affected by such content. Our third finding was that Weibo users are more willing to see the content of mourning the death of a celebrity, possibly as a result of being more emotionally distanced, and viewing SMM postings as news rather than expressions of sorrow. Finally, although SMM was shown to be a manifestation of herd behavior in our case study example, we also found that the power of the masses could be harnessed for positive real-world effect, when a digital world campaign was successfully used to influence the winners of the American Music Awards in 2017.