Following the deaths of Katie Scott '06 and Taryn King '07 earlier this academic year, students found different ways to cope. Some attended College-sponsored vigils. Some attended funerals. Some sought the counsel of college staff, family, and friends.
Some posted on King and Scott's Facebook "walls."
During its two years in operation, Facebook, a social networking web site that allows students to post personal profiles, has served many social functions, including a communication medium, a networking facilitator, a bulletin board, and a procrastination tool. But in the case of deceased students, it has taken on a much different role?a memorial.
Scott died in a car crash in New Hampshire last October. Soon afterward, friends and classmates began to flood her Facebook wall?an online message board?with personal notes. The posts were mostly simple and succinct expressions of love and well-wishing addressed directly to Scott.
"I guess I felt compelled to express the loss I was feeling and the fact that I was praying for her," said senior Margaret Fuller. "I didn't really think about whether she would receive my message or not."
Similar posts were made on King's wall after she died suddenly while studying abroad in Ireland in January. King's profile has since been removed from Facebook.
When the staff of Facebook learns that a member has died, it removes that person's basic personal information, contact information, and membership to groups from her profile, according to Facebook spokesperson Chris Hughes.
They preserve the member's photographs, wall, and select personal information for one month before removing the profile altogether.
Hughes said that Facebook learns about the death of members via emails from family or friends of the deceased.
Scott's profile remains, however, and her wall has received 57 new posts since her death, some added as recently as April 3.
Sarah Little, a childhood friend of Scott and a senior at Middlebury College, has made nine new posts since her friend's passing.
"I don't think there should be any reason to remove profiles such as Katie's," Little said in an email to the Orient.
"It has proven to be a helpful forum for many of us in our grieving processes and, for those people who don't want to look at it, they can simply avoid clicking on the link," she said.
According to Hughes, Facebook phases out deceased members' profiles in order to accurately reflect the social community that comprises it. He was not surprised, however, that students use the web site to memorialize lost loved ones.
"People don't log on to Facebook to imitate or lie about who they are, but, instead, to build a virtual representation of their 'real-life' personality," Hughes said in an email to the Orient.
"To that end, it does not surprise us that students often move to Facebook after a peer has died to express their grief at the loss," he said.
The new messages on Scott's wall are different from those that were posted in the immediate aftermath of her death. While last fall the messages took the tone of farewell, newer notes more closely resemble postcards to an old friend. Little posted recently to tell Scott about her Spring Break. Jen Horonjeff, who graduated from the University of California-Irvine last spring, has periodically posted messages describing events in her life that have reminded her of her lost friend.
Little empathized with this inclination.
"A song will come on the radio or I'll see a movie trailer and, in spite of the fact that I know that she is gone, I'll subconsciously think 'I have to remember to tell that to Katie,'" she said.
Students at other schools have utilized other features of Facebook to honor the memories of their deceased classmates. When University of Arkansas (UA) sophomore April Love was murdered by her boyfriend in September 2005, her friend Hillary Klinger, then a first year, created a Facebook group called "In Memory of April Love (1985-2005)." The group has a discussion board where friends have quoted Bible passages, described favorite memories involving April, and announced updates on the trial of her killer. There are 407 UA students in the group.
"The [group] has also made it easier for students to post activities involving April," Klinger said in an email to the Orient. "I was able to send everyone in April's memorial group a message telling them of a documentary in Texarkana, Arkansas, dedicated to April Love and others who have been murdered due to domestic violence."
Fuller and Little do not see the public accessibility of the messages they post on Scott's as a deterrent.
"Writing her a message that her other friends can see conveys how meaningful her friendship was, so her memory is able to stay alive," said Fuller.
"The Facebook allows Katie's friends to not only 'speak' to her, but to also carry on a kind of conversation between all of us," said Little.
"Particularly because we are all geographically dispersed, it is comforting to know that other people are thinking and dreaming about Katie as frequently as I am," she said.
As to whether she believes that the messages are getting through to her friend, Little was uncertain.
"I guess in some way the internet is such a broad, seemingly limitless entity that it almost feels like sending a message out to Katie," Little said.
"And, if she's out there somewhere, maybe she'll receive it," she said.