Marking the Moment – the death of Jim Stynes

markingmomentdiagramJim Stynes spent his final moments with his wife and two children. It was an intimate end to a very public two-and-a-half year battle with cancer.

As understandably private as it was, Stynes’ death was also an event of the people. Australians were determined to mark it and remember the life of one of Australia’s greatest recent migrants: an Irishman who had arrived in Australia as an 18-year-old; won a Brownlow Medal and an Order of Australia medal; run the Melbourne Football Club; helped a heap of young people through charitable works and touched millions as he shared his cancer fight with the nation.

Sharing, commenting and Liking on Facebook was how many Australians (and Irishmen) chose to do this.

In fact, Share Wars data shows that of all the news stories about people that were shared on Facebook between March and May in 2012 – including those about sport and rock stars, criminals and politicians – Jim Stynes’ death was shared more than any other.

People felt they knew Stynes and they liked him. Many would have remembered him as a footballer, some as a saviour of youth. These factors contributed to the sharing of news of his death as did the fact he was also famous in his native Ireland.

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Jim Stynes in his pomp.

The sharing behaviour around the Stynes story is a classic case of what we term ‘Marking the Moment’, when readers of news content share to recognise that something significant has happened. It’s almost always driven by memory and nostalgia.

Last week, Hal outlined the classification we have developed for news content shared through social networks. This is based on the analysis of the Stynes story and hundreds of others in the million-plus articles we captured between March and May 2012.

Marking the moment is a subset of ‘Newsbreaking’ which, alongside ‘Norming’ and ‘Sharing’, is one of our three primary sharing categories. So far in our analysis, we’ve been able to categorise all social distribution of news content into one of these three groups.

The most dominant of these categories – Norming, in which people share content to identify with a particular point of view – is not really sharing at all. It’s more about taking a position and telling your network, “You’re either with me or against me”. It’s a way for users to define their boundaries of taste and decency and to find out who among their network is on their team (and who is not).

Newsbreaking, on the other hand, is genuine sharing. In our classification, Newsbreaking’s second strand (alongside Marking the Moment) is ‘Explaining’. Explaining is the digital equivalent of cutting out a newspaper article to show someone.

Marking the Moment is similar but comprises specific elements that set it apart. Marking the Moment generally contains a dose of nostalgia – which prompts readers and their networks to remember better times, reminisce or feel their age – or priming, in which readers have been prepared for a particular outcome based on an understanding of the narrative to that point.

There was a bit of both happening with the Stynes story. Australians knew Stynes as footballer first, then as a club president and then as a family man fighting cancer. As the end drew near, they were prepared for his death. Many would have remembered Stynes as a long-haired, mobile young ruckman from his playing days. It must have felt like yesterday to many. A decent portion of them would have been over-40 themselves and found the news of his death, aged just 45, an unsettling mirror on their own mortality.

Interestingly, most of the other notable people whose deaths were extensively shared by Australians during this period were musicians: Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb, Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, Men At Work’s Greg Ham, Booker T & the MGs’ Donald ‘ Duck’ Dunn, Aboriginal troubadour Jimmy Little, disco’s Donna Summer, actor Jon Blake, Crowded House’s Peter Jones, Cold Chisel’s Steve Prestwich, Aussie pop singer Edith Bliss, restaurateur Vlado Gregurek, mountain climber Lincoln Hall, actress Kathryn Joosten, designer of the Raleigh chopper bicycle Alan Oakley, Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak and Marshall amplifiers founder Jim Marshall.

The startling thing about this list is that everyone on it, like Stynes himself, has played a part in defining a period for our generations. Their various feats have lifted the ordinary among us out of the day-to-day and brought a sense of magic to our lives.

When the people who created these fantastic memories die, we mourn the end of an era or a link to an era already gone. This brings us closer to the end of our existence and so we mark the moment. To remember and be remembered.

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Andrew Hunter

About Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter is Editor-in-Chief of Microsoft's MSN. Twitter: @Huntzie

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