Last night we heard the terribly sad news of the death of Nelson Mandela. As is common in modern times, the first I, and many others, heard about it was when South African friends tweeted and shared on Facebook that they were expecting an announcement from their President Jacob Zuma.
Within seconds of seeing the tweet above, my Twitter timeline and Facebook newsfeed turned into streams of breaking news, quotes by, images of and tributes to the former Robben Island prisoner turned South African President.
I joined in. I shared images like the one above. I shared songs from the likes of The Special AKA and Johnny Clegg which were written in praise of Mandela in his lifetime. And I shared my own personal memories of the Anti Apartheid movement in the 1980s, Mandela's 70th Birthday tribute in London when he was still behind bars and his 90th Birthday celebrations when he joined us in Hyde Park.
When the dust has settled I have no doubt that there will be queue of commentators waiting for their chance to attack the mass grieving on social media. They will tell us that it was self-indulgent. They will, I'm sure, bemoan the public nature of mourning in the modern world and long for the return of a more restrained, dignified time.
I have no doubt that the criticism will come but I hope that I am wrong. Mass grieving is nothing new, social networks are merely a new medium. We will, I'm sure, be reminded of how much we, as human beings, need to share our grief when Mandela's body is laid to rest. The streets of South Africa will be a mass of humanity, not just at his funeral but all around the country. There will also be vigils at South African embassies and at religious ceremonies across the globe.
Many of us need to share and I certainly found my ability to engage in discussion and share thoughts and images that inspired me, to be cathartic. People who were on their own, or who were the only people awake late at night in South Africa and elsewhere, had the ability to come to terms with the death of their hero with the help of others around them.
Social networks provide the channel for shared grief more often than many of us are aware. Facebook, especially, has helped to bring people together after the early passing of more than one friend in recent years. In one case a Facebook group is still open for a friend who died six years ago and many of his friends and family still visit and post messages on his birthday, the anniversary of his death or simply when they have something they want to share with him.
Social media is often derided as a modern day distraction that encourages us to be more open with our thoughts and emotions than some people find comfortable. Perhaps there is something in that belief, but I believe that it often plays a key role in bringing us together, helping us to share and reducing the burden on many.
Those who don't find it comfortable can take a break from their newsfeeds and timelines for a day or two. But please let the rest of us share our grief with others who need to know that they're not alone.