On Tuesday, Elizabeth Edwards passed away after a long battle with cancer, and in typical fashion, the news was up on Twitter in a flash. Elizabeth Edwards was and remains well-respected by many for her good character throughout her battle with cancer, her unfaithful husband John Edwards, and the struggles of losing her son. In the days following her death, it is more clear than ever how tweets can memorialize important public people — here are the top 5 ways they do so.
1. Spreading the Word. Twitter spreads the word about public figures who have passed in two ways — by simply relaying the news and by spreading biographical information about the person that people may not have known. For instance, Elizabeth Edwards became a trending topic on Twitter almost immediately after her death on Tuesday. Even if you don’t follow any news sources, it would have been easy to notice that Elizabeth Edwards’s name was a top tweeting subject. Even Barack Obama had this kind message to send:
Now that the new Twitter — and it’s hard to remember the old one — puts such a focus on media links, it’s easy to read up on a person’s lifetime achievements and accomplishments.
2. Links to Charity. And once you read up on a person’s life work, you are more likely to become invested in a cause if he or she had one. Twitter is already good at promoting charity on its network — as is social media in general with sites like Endorse for a Cause — but associating a cause with a real person, particularly one that has just died, inspires a greater connection. In the case of Elizabeth Edwards, for instance, you might choose to take advantage of tweets about breast cancer support.
3. Starting Meaningful Conversations. Lots of people think — and research also shows — that Twitter conversations don’t run very deep, and that most people send their tweets out into the netscape without anyone reading them. But there are still a huge number of people who do retweet and participate in group conversations on Twitter. For example, the following tweet — “From now on, John Edwards should be referred to as the husband of Elizabeth Edwards and not the other way around” has been retweeted 14 times, multiplying the number of people who can respond to that interesting conversation starter of a statement. Tweets memorialize people, then, by providing followers with a plethora of short, meaningful messages to expand upon or recycle.
4. Hashtag Pages. The ability to tag someone — #Edwards in this case — means that tweets can organize bloggers’ collective thoughts in a more manageable way. The concept of the simple tag allows Twitter users to make simple or generalized statements and then show, in one link, how they relate to the memory of an important person. Here are some recent Elizabeth Edwards tweets that have demonstrated the power of the hashtag:
5. Pithy reflections. Finally, Twitter is simply built for short messages — the character limit reigns. Think of all the long obituaries you’ve ever read — they can provide great in-depth looks at a person’s life, but it’s easy to read these kinds of articles without a single phrase or sentence sticking in your mind. The right tweet — and tweets will speak to different people in different ways — can memorialize a person in a surprisingly lasting way. And since Twitter users pre-select who they follow, and therefore are more likely to be reading the words of people they respect or care about in their timelines, the short messages from those users will feel more meaningful. Even something like Senator John McCain‘s tweet, which reads “My thoughts & prayers are with Elizabeth Edwards’ family and friends. It was an honor to know her and she will remain an inspiration to all,” is something you probably wouldn’t get in your standard news article.
People have been finding ways to respect each other’s memories throughout history — it is only fitting, then, that social media presents a new format and frontier for honoring the legacies of good and important men and women.