Right now, in a place you've never visited, a person you'll never know is dying. If he's dying in a particularly devastating way—and, more importantly, if he is leaving behind shareable content—it is possible that millions of strangers will mourn his or her death tomorrow. Why?

Last week, there is a good chance that Facebook served up to you a Buzzfeed post entitled "A Father Sings To His Dying Newborn Son After His Wife Dies Following Childbirth." Below the site's iconic yellow buttons—"LOL," "win," "omg," "cute"—sits, indeed, a video of a father singing to his dying newborn son after his wife died following childbirth. As the incubator hums and clicks, you can, if you want, watch a man in anguish sing for the end of his small family. In a tab next to Gmail, you can watch his helpless son die.

"The video has spread across the world," BuzzFeed boasts. According to Buzzfeed and YouTube's public statistics, the post has been viewed over three million times; the video, over 14 million.

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As you could imagine, Facebook played a large part in the story's proliferation. BuzzFeed's post remained pinned to the top of the blog's Facebook page until Tuesday and, from there, was shared over 46 thousand times. For days after the video was posted and picked up on other sites, the story sat at the top of Facebook's "Trending" column, which appears on the right hand side of your Facebook page:

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Facebook users shared Buzzfeed's post with captions like: "Speechless and sobbing"; "Omg so sad !"; "No matter what happens in your life,stuff like this brings it into perspective...Poor Guy....Heartbreaking." It bred a large community of people grieving in public over a single stranger's intense, seemingly private loss.

This most recent post is just one example in an Internet full of oddly hectoring tributes to fallen strangers. Gawker, true as always to our name, isn't exempt from cashing in on this desire. A quick look at our "tragedy" tag offers abundant examples of grief-for-grief's sake. Others push the category even further: A recent The Daily What post called (deep breath now) "Tragic Loss of the Day: 13 Year Old Anna Died in a Traffic Accident Two Weeks Ago. Share in Her Memory by Listening to Her Playing a Beautiful Rendition of Downton Abbey's Theme Song" embedded a now-popular video of a young girl who was killed while riding her bicycle. An UpWorthy post formerly titled "This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular" (later given an SSRI and retitled "This Amazing Kid Got To Enjoy 19 Awesome Years On This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.") announces the death of a young man whose music career was aided by the help of a feeling Internet. It is an update on an older post: "This Kid Is Going To Die. He Is Also Going To Rock. And He Needs Your Help."

Grief porn is as old a tabloid category as sex scandal. Like regular pornography, it offers a packaged, heightened jolt that mimics a natural, human experience. It's voyeuristic, addictive, and compulsively attractive. It grabs at a desire to indulge when indulgence is otherwise unavailable. It promises a brief, satisfying release.

And, like regular pornography, the internet has transformed it. Freed from the already relaxed constraints of tabloid journalism, grief porn is no longer obligated to fake newsworthiness or importance. You don't need to die in a particularly tragic way; your death doesn't need to be the occasion for punishment or law-enactment. You just need to have produced consumable, shareable content before your untimely death. Rather than a news angle allowing a writer to smuggle grief porn into a paper, a grief-porn angle allows a content creator to smuggle a shareable unit onto Facebook.

There is an essential and almost appealing honesty to this (another way it resembles regular old sex porn): Look at This Video and Feel Sad and Then Tell Your Friends! And because in grief porn, unlike in porn porn, we imagine our indulgence in as noble rather than indecent, we feel comfortable—if not obligated—to share it with our friends.

This is by design, of course. On a crowded social internet that places a premium on generating outsized emotion and intense reaction, these stories are as close as a content producer can get to a guaranteed hit. Each social grief-porn story is surrounded by the jarring visual and verbal vocabulary of the social web: "TRENDING," "POPULAR," "SHARE," "LIKE," small upward-pointing arrows, tiny blue thumbs-up signs. We've already been trained, anyway, to present our best selves—the person we want others to believe that we are—on social media. The reaction to tragedy is no longer (just) a privately murmured better them than me but (also) a public performance: I am a feeling human!

It's hard to criticize people for honestly feeling an emotion, or publicly expressing those honest feelings. Even grief porn's most active consumers would agree that the grief one feels for a newborn whose life has only been introduced to you in the context of its impending death is different from the grief felt in confronting the loss of people who made up a part of your life.

Where Facebook and the content providers that orbit it have succeed is in gamifying and monetizing that honest reaction, frictionlessly converting the near-giddy emotional rush received from a awful story into a compulsion: "You have to read how sad this is." We dress it up with sad emojis and condolences, we talk about crying, and sometimes do cry, but it's entertainment—an episode of Parenthood, but with real people. It's something to see, extract a rush of feeling from, and forget. I mean, let's say it: We get off on it.

Maybe there is something noble to it. Sharing "A Father Sings To His Dying Newborn Son After His Wife Dies Following Childbirth" on social media could do good: A fund to pay for the "Blackbird" family's expenses has raised nearly $200,000. Similarly, the young musician who Just Died had a song reach number one on iTunes before his death. ("Blackbird," too, made a grim appearance at the top of iTunes' rock chart, so bully for UMG chairman Lucian Grainge, or whoever it is that owns Beatles recordings now.) Millions of people have watched the young girl's cover of the Downton Abby theme song, which is, I suppose, nice for her, and pretty good for Downton Abbey.

Because we live in such an odd time, we can even watch the "Blackbird" singer address his newfound Internet fame at the memorial for his wife and son. Even in his grief, and in confronting the strangeness of being at the center of a viral tragedy, he is warm and charming:

"I've had an outpouring of love and support, most of them involve the words 'I know words aren't enough, but.' And now I know how that feels, because when I say 'thank you' to all of you, that's not enough. I could never articulate how much your support and your strength and your prayers and your emails and your Facebook messages and your text messages—I don't know how any of you got my number, but there's been a lot of me just, 'Uh, okay, thank you, um.' I didn't bother going into the whole, 'I don't know who you are, but thank you.' I just—it has meant so much to me, and so when I say 'thank you' I know exactly what you mean."

"Doesn't that make it worth it?" you might wonder. "Isn't it worth the possibly misguided intent and the showiness of our Facebook crocodile shares if it relieves even the slightest amount of sadness for those at the center of these tragedies?" As with most questions about the effects of social media the only real answer is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I certainly don't think that we always know it does. I can't imagine many in a state of overwhelming pain would feel as gracious about Internet strangers texting to express their sympathies for lost loved ones they have never met.

There isn't much of a chance the victim is going to see our sympathies anyway. Unless we somehow procure his or her cellphone number, which apparently some do, we're expressing grief and pain for the benefit of our friends and families, not for the victims of a tragedy.

Or, really, we're expressing it for ourselves—to show the world our sensitivity and our humanity. We immerse ourselves in ectype pain and then treat normal human responses to these enforced emotional tests as badges of honor. We've convinced ourselves that these adventures into the darkest moments of others lives' are a way to honor them, and to honor humanity in general. We put our compassion on display in a Facebook post. We turn grief into a shibboleth for humanity. We stare at someone else's death and then tell others to do the same. It's porn we can share, because it demonstrates our compassion. If only porn porn were so lucky.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]