Friday, September 11, 2009

Virtual Gravestone

I've had a lot of discussions recently about the strangely open nature of social networking websites - like Facebook - where almost everyone's personal information is up for grabs. With Facebook in particular, the "news feed" serves as a proverbial pipeline of pictures, messages, articles, and proclamations about our personal lives. Someone has a baby - you've seen pictures and statuses chronicling that experience. Someone gets a new job or fired - it pops up. People show up to their 5th... 10th.... 20th... year high school reunions and no one's surprised anymore. Person A lost 50 pounds, Person B lost his ability to walk, Person C married young and then divorced, but none of it's a shock. So, what happens when someone dies? In a culture where our private lives are on display to (near) everyone, what happens with all that information when a life stops? How does Facebook digest death?

I stumbled onto a blog article through Twitter yesterday posting an e-mail about someone who'd died, her community of friends, and their reactions to her death on her Facebook page. I've taken the liberty of posting it below. Have a read, it's rather moving:

"A few months ago my cousin passed away. At age 28, Amy caught pneumonia and was not able fight off the infection. As the news of her death spread, her Facebook was filled with postings by her friends and family expressing their sadness. Although a couple of her friends have access to her Facebook page and one even (eerily) used it to post a status and add friends posthumously, no one has deleted the account. I looked at it today for the first time since her death and people are still using Facebook to share their important events with Amy and reminisce with each other about all the things they love and miss about her. There are pictures of her being newly added and tagged. One friend even signed up for an account specifically to write on her wall and will be deleting it just as quickly.

Before, we mostly shared our grief with those physically in our vicinity or people emotionally close to us. Now, like everything else, our grief casts a wider net and we share it with more people, more strangers. Also, it feels as if my cousin continues to live in the periphery. I can see what her friends and family are up to, just like I can see what my other (living) cousins extended people are doing. Every post brings her back into focus if only for a moment. While I was not incredibly close to her, through the postings I see more clearly the sort of person she was and all the goodness that a person can be. Her Facebook is her flower and cross on the highway, her Kensington Gardens. I have no idea how long it will last. A few months is such a short time, and the wish that a loved one is still with us can stay for a lifetime.

I'm not sure what this means. I just found it incredibly beautiful and thought I would share it with you. I'm still digesting and get tangled in all the possible words."

As a man approaching his 23rd year, I've been lucky to not have lost many people. To my knowledge, I can't say I've known anyone that has died in recent years; especially, someone young enough to have owned a profile on Facebook. I can't even pretend, or guess, at how the people in the story above are feeling. And, I can't say I've ever thought about what would happen to my profile page if I died tomorrow. I suppose I just sort of assumed that it would fall into disuse, a family member or friend may log on eventually and close it down, and that would be the end of it. Instead, in the story above, family and friends of the dearly deceased flocked to her Facebook page to share memories and condolences. To reminisce and say goodbye. Amy's profile became a virtual gravestone, and while I can't conceive how I would feel about that if it was someone I knew, I can say that this idea is profound to me.

For a concept that supposedly centers around interpersonal connectivity, the internet can be a very selfish place:
"I'll post picture albums to show the world all the fun stuff I do with my friends"

"Here's how I was feeling today"

"Read this article about the cause I fight for because I believe in it, and so should you"

"My day was really crappy""

"I don't believe in privacy settings because I believe in freedom of information"
I find it a very rare occurrence when someone or a group does something that makes me hear:
"We'll maintain this as long as we can, not just because we loved her, but because she really was amazing"
On 9/11/2001, I was driven home early from high school because a group of people selfishly tried to conform the world to how they felt it should be. And, I selfishly wondered whether or not the soccer game I was dressed up for was going to be rescheduled.

On 9/11/2009, I have off from law school where I selfishly decided to relax on a rainy day. And, I selfishly thought about this.

1 comment:

nevie said...

i used to be told that when people die, and facebook is notified, the account is deleted and purged. i don't think they do it so much anymore because of this phenomenon. hell, my friends and i still post on my friend jamie's facebook over 2 years since she passed. i think it was extremely therapeutic to her very best friends. (which is a selfish thought, but i mean whatever everything anybody does is inherently selfish.)