Friday, November 27, 2009

Facebook and Death

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and whatever future sites and technologies replace them, we will all be acutely aware when every single person we know dies.

At the moment it's not so obvious. Most of the Facebook generation is young, and the individuals who use these online tools are the ones more likely to be able to afford a computer and so less likely to be living in conditions that make them more likely to die young. (Got that?) But in twenty years or so, when our generation starts heading into late middle age and heart attacks and strokes begin to take their toll, it will become an increasingly regular occurrence to find out, via Newsfeed or Tweet, that someone you once knew passed on. The kids you went to high school with and haven't seen since that reunion. The ex, or the weekend fling, whom you stopped talking to long ago. The former co-worker (the one you flirted with, the one you rivaled with), your former best friend's boyfriend's kid sister, your college professors.

It will be strange, I imagine. It will be the saddest part of our wide-cast net of human awareness. It is easy now - or used to be easier - to travel through life as if walking through woods; your nearby companions are right there with you, and some friendlier acquaintances and more distant relatives are occasionally obscured by the trees and undergrowth, and way off in the distance showing their faces only when crossing a meadow are those folks you only maintain the most casual of contact with. On such a passage, a distant individual might stop appearing for years (or for ever), and you'd never know the difference; they could just have taken a slight detour behind the thickets. Your view allows some knowledge that there is a whole world out there, but it is mainly a personal, close-knit journey.

Thanks to these social connection innovations, the path we take, or will take, will be more like that on a great, flat plain, or maybe inside an infinitely large glass building with see-through tubes and bridges everywhere, or even on the inside of a Ringworld. You can see for miles and miles, and there are a LOT of people out there; only the horizon obscures them from view. If that fellow you friended after talking music tastes with at the bus stop twenty years ago and never spoke to again suddenly drops down dead, you can see it happen even at that great distance; especially because you can see all the people closer to him turning their heads, like rubbernecking on the highway.

As we get older, there will be more and more bodies littering the clearsighted landscape. (In this metaphor, there may still be distant forests in which the older, unconnected generations are walking largely unseen; only the younger generations traverse the vast plain, at least at the moment.) Mortality everywhere. I suspect, and I hope, that it will actually bring us all closer together - if your traveling companions drop off while tramping through the woods with you, you're suddenly alone; but in this wide-open landscape, you can see that way off over there are some other folks looking lonely, and you can cross the distance to join them.

The only question is, as this blogger asks, is if we'll be able to control the social-network announcement of our own deaths. As she points out, an individual might not want to have their Facebook page memorialized or their friends to announce their passing online. Do we have the right - or ability - to take ourselves out of the landscape? As social networks become more prominent, does a person have some (legal or moral) propriety over their cybersphere presence? Most likely, no matter how strenously a person objects, in the near future no one will be able to prevent their online presence.

Stuff to think about. And if you're curious, this article describes the current Facebook policy towards death of a member.

So, to sum up plainly: I think it’s highly likely that in our futures we will remain continually aware of the basic life-status of nearly everyone we ever meet; at the very least we’ll be aware of anytime someone dies. In the past, someone you lost touch with would simply disappear from your sphere of knowledge and you’d probably never find out if they outlived you or not. Thus, we’ll see far more death than any previous generation. But at the same time – I hope – this will ultimately make us less lonely and more connected.


Ozkirbas said...

Good post. It reminds me of my Virual Gravestone post from a few weeks ago. Does online validation that someone has died qualify as actually "seeing" death when the deceased is someone you do not not very well/at all? Do you see this see this streaming consciousness of life-status as a positive?

Jstone said...

Ehhhh...I don't think its much different than finding out through the grapevine that someone you used to know is dead. Like when a guy I sort of knew in high school died I found out about it pretty quickly. Meanwhile dead people whom facebook says I should be friends with, I had no idea they were dead.

Brett said...

Re: Jstone-

I think, particularly more as time goes on, it will be harder to not realize when facebook-says-we-should-be-friends have died. We might be able to opt out, but I wouldn't be surprised if in the future, we will have interconnected applications that track key news from everyone we know. We might have a personal database which is accessed by our cellphones, our facebooks, and everything else, such that no one has to add a friend to multiple different programs; you add Jane to your personal database one time, and from there on, you can pick up a phone anywhere (which will read your personal bar code/chip/thing), say "Call Jane," and the phone will call the right Jane. Phone numbers will practically cease to exist. So, naturally, our personal newsfeed will inform us whenever someone we once added has passed, unless we work really hard to hack the system to avoid it.

But that's all sci-y-fi-y talk!

Actually, I was also thinking a lot more about getting older. At my age (mid-20s) hearing about someone I didn't know much in high school dying is pretty likely, with or without Facebook. But in my mid 40s? My mid 60s? This is what I think will change - as we get older, these tenuous connections will be preserved; whereas in the past, with age came a complete loss of such contact.

Brett said...

Re: Oz - I knew I had forgotten something! I had meant to reference your Virtual Gravestone post, because yeah.