Log Me Out When I’m Gone

Death and dying in the age of Facebook

Photo by Thom on Unsplash

On any given day, I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed an obsessive amount of times. I check it before I even roll out of bed and fully open my eyes. I have a sort-of routine where I click on several news links posted by friends, “like” or “comment” on a few photos, and read statuses from people I probably haven’t ever even spoken to in person. On July 10th 2012, I scrolled through the usual noise to find a status that simply said:

“I loved you all, I’m so sorry.”

It was confusing to me. I remember that sudden dropping in my stomach that I quickly ignored because I refused to think the worst. Except the worst was the truth.

It was a suicide note.

The suicide note of a boy I knew in elementary school, a boy who grew up to be a funny, quick-witted teenager. He once gave me the finger, playfully, across the room in an eleventh grade math class for making a sarcastic comment to one of his jokes. He was likable — I never had an issue with him, but I also never really knew him. I didn’t know what his dreams were, what his comfort foods were or what he did for fun.

I didn’t go to his funeral for that reason. I was stupid and I didn’t want people to think I was pretending to be his friend even though I did feel great sadness and empathy for his family. Despite that, what I’ve remained most fixated as years pass, is the idea that when he took his own life that day, his Facebook friends were among the first to know that something was wrong. Me, his random classmate from years long gone. How strange that something so intimate can be learned so easily.

***

I’ve asked myself the question we all ask ourselves, “what happens to us when we die?” too many times - my brain somersaulting at the various possibilities. Yes, of course, there is in fact a scientific answer to that involving decay and the breaking down process of our physical body, but that doesn’t aid in even closely figuring out what happens to our being, our soul, our personality. What’s more is that this — this ineffable thing that makes us who we are — has become the only part of us that we can sort of leave behind. We leave trinkets of wisdom tucked away on notebook paper, text messages to friends, birthday cards, our Facebook accounts. These things live on, drenched in shadows of the person who created them. These seemingly ephemeral musings we had as living, breathing creatures are now the only thing “permanent” about us because, truly, what happens to our Facebooks after we die?

Do these curations of lives that once were die too or does our digital footprint leave behind a legacy we could’ve never predicted?

In this particular case, the boy I once knew’s Facebook is still extremely active after his death. Upon a fast glance, one might not even realize that the person whose name it bears is no longer with us. There are comments, conversations, and photos from as recent as this very week. His family and friends use his Facebook Wall as a sort of gathering point for remembering him and chatting with him. His wall has become a digital cork board of sorts, depicting events of those who love him, events that these same individuals are attempting to share.

It’s a way that these people participating can find solace and comfort in a situation that is beyond immediate comprehension. Death is an inherently difficult inevitability to deal with. So, if this one-sided communication provides some sort of aid in the process of moving on then perhaps Facebook as a coping mechanism is a great tool to have access to.

However, on the flip side, what if Facebook is facilitating in the opposite way? What if, with the advent of Facebook, individuals are being given the tools for complicated grief to take hold?

What I mean here is that Facebook may be allowing a cord that would have otherwise been severed by an individual’s death to stay taut. For some, this can be viewed and utilized as a healthy way of keeping the lost one relevant and remembered, for others, it can become a cancer. A perpetual reminder of the life that was and is no longer. Facebook has made it harder to fully move on, particularly for the personalities who are very susceptible to depression or addictive behavior.

On a much smaller scale, this is similar to when two romantically involved people enter and exit a relationship. The process of deleting each other on respective forms of social media is a part of the break-up ritual so each party can move on. But, I would argue that it’s easier to delete your ex-boyfriend on Facebook when he’s very much still alive. When a person is no longer there, that living being behind the profile picture, it’s much harder to cut that digital tie because the finality of it is more concrete than ever before. There’s no one to select “Accept” should you want to become friends with that person in the future. And this is just the way it is now. Things are hard enough for our modern culture who has grown up with Facebook. So, what about the future? If we’re digitizing and memorializing our grieving processes, what is the impact on generations to come?

***

It’s clear that the concept of digital gravestones is something our children and our children’s children will know all too well. They likely won’t know or remember a time where someone hasn’t had an Internet or social media presence because they’ll have been raised in an era where the virtual memorials are abundant. They will have access to the Facebooks, Twitters, and blog pages of those who have passed. Will they come to mourn at them or will this landscape of ghostly social media pages become a sort of anthropological study? Who knows, visiting gravestones and erecting mausoleums may not be the way we commemorate our dead in the future at all. And honestly, with the advent of the Internet and personalized web pages, why is it needed? When my grandchild can visit my Facebook and see what I was like at nineteen, twenty-seven, or thirty-five, why would they go elsewhere to commemorate their grandmother?

There’s a lot more to be learned about a person when looking at a carefully curated portrait of themselves than a large marble slab with an engraving. The New York Time’s website, Legacy.com, is already the beginning of this idea. It’s essentially a digital rolodex of obituaries. While Facebook started, and continues to be, for the living, Legacy.com is a one-stop shop in acknowledging and maintaining ties to the dead. Visitors share anecdotes and factoids about one who has passed. It’s a guestbook at a funeral parlor sans the sounds of tears and the overwhelming scent of freesia or formaldehyde.

I don’t know if that boy from my elementary school is on Legacy.com and, frankly, I feel as if I know too much already to even check. As I said before, his digital gravestone — his Facebook — is very active still. His family has yet to utilize a newer feature, launched in February 2015, that allows something called a legacy contact. Now, it’s very possible no one in his family can get into his Facebook so it will just continue to thrive on as it is. If they do have access into his page, as he once saw it, then they can use Facebook’s new policy to add a “Remembering” before his name. The policy, which wasn’t around until over ten years after Facebook’s birth, is clearly indicative of the turn the site has taken. What was once created as a means of simply staying connected to friends in college, has evolved into becoming the lasting and singular connection between the living and the dead.

We’ve made it okay for the Internet to know us, mimic us, and have our accounts appear as us but only now have we begun to realize the ramifications of that and started figuring out ways to adjust to the inevitable. The digital footprint runs deep.

***

Perhaps one of the most unique attributes of Facebook is its ability to act as a public crier. In the boy’s case, his suicide note was and still is available for the entire world to see and interact with. It was a conscious decision on his part, to put that information out into to the world in such a way. Facebook made it possible for him to put his last words in pixelated stone and it’s fascinating how that came to fruition, all from Facebook asking the question: “What are you doing?” Anyone can post on the enormous, infinite bulletin board of Facebook with whatever information they’d like to convey to the general public. It seems so small until it’s not small.

Before Facebook, it was customary to call someone or go see them in person to tell them that someone has died. It wasn’t something written in an etiquette handbook, but it was just a way in which this particular life happening was handled. Now, someone — anyone! — can convey the news of another’s passing with just the click of a “Post.” The transfer of information is much simpler, more succinct and perhaps more insensitive now. You can read about someone’s death as you walk to work, wake up in the morning, go to the bathroom… You’re suddenly able to see the upset and the anguish before you can even fully process what has happened. There’s an intrusive quality about the information of someone’s death being passed on this way.

I look at the boy’s situation and, yes, we were Facebook friends, but we weren’t really in-real-life friends. Would he have wanted everyone to know what happened? Would he have even cared? Facebook death announcements create a conversation about the death that bears asking: Is this appropriate?

This makes me remember my childhood friend Christina. She had been in my Girl Scout troop in elementary and middle-school and she was in my group of core girlfriends. She had cystic fibrosis and her lung transplant failed just three months after her 16th birthday. I volunteered to speak at her funeral because my friends were also speaking and that seemed like the proper thing to do at the time. But I hadn’t seen Christina or been particularly close with her in the months immediately before she died. I’ve always wondered if it was appropriate that I did that, that I spoke about her intimately to our graduating class. If she were able to see the funeral, would she have been comfortable with how the event transpired? I think the same goes with Facebook. Would the dead be content with certain individuals providing commentary on their passing? Facebook allows for that blurring of the line between those who should say something and those who can.

***

We’re a generation of “oversharers” and that facet translates in convoluted ways when we die. Facebook has made death a larger group activity, with more people involved than ever before. It has made conversation on any topic — including and not limited to death — open-ended and free-flowing. We’ve become masters of the art of sharing and how to do so, specifically and methodically. And what for? What is the point of these virtual identities we make when one day we are going to die and someone that’s not us is going to control it? What will it all mean then?

Digital legacies may just mean that you’ve left a piece of yourself behind for nothing. They may mean that you’ve left a piece of history. There’s no answer for what they mean just yet because they are still evolving and multiplying. As more and more social media platforms, like Facebook, ask the question of “what will happen when our users die?”, the digital graveyard will take a more definite shape.

And, until we get there ourselves, we’ll just keep posting.

Editor’s Note: I wrote this back in March, but with Jenna Wortham’s “Ghosts in the Machine” circulating, I figured it was time to just put it out there.