Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Not so much my own inevitable end, but death in general is on my mind quite a bit these days. I’m starting to reach that point in life (turning 45 today, in fact) where one begins to lose more and more people as time goes on, and it’s brought on some interesting new ponderings. One of the things I’m starting to experience is how social media has changed the way we find out about and deal with someone’s passing. Along with that, we get to see how our online presence tends to outlive us. Like electronic ghosts…
In the past 20+ years the internet has been woven into just about every aspect of our lives, especially social media, and we’re sharing more and more of what used to be relegated to physical (and more private) media. Remember writing in diaries…on paper? And ordering prints for photos when then go into a scrapbook? Sometimes I miss it….but I also love technology and using the gadgets we now have, and like a lot of other people I tend to just dump everything into the Cloud.
So… In November 2014 I got on Facebook and there are all these messages posted to a friend’s profile saying things like: “Steve, why??” “What happened?” “i miss you my best friend.” I thought “WTF?”, with a sinking feeling. Many more messages followed, referring to him in the past tense, and finally it hit me that he had taken his own life. For weeks afterward, people posted messages on there as more and more people found out about it.
Coming to terms with his death and that horrible sense of loss was one thing — but this business of someone’s Facebook profile staying active after their death, and people posting messages to it (and each other), was something new for me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Is it morbid? Is it helpful to those he left behind? I eventually came to realize that it’s actually kind of comforting to be able to say something “to” him this way, as a form of closure. Or maybe not closure in the traditional sense, because people still occasionally post to it. “Steve, I found this picture of us I never shared with you.” “Happy 40th! Missing you every day!” It’s kinda sweet, and I know his family appreciates it.
A couple of months ago another friend of mine, John, died…and everything happened the same exact way. I checked Facebook before work, began reading all these strange messages to him, and realized he’d died the previous evening. Renal failure from a lifetime of diabetes. It hit me really hard because we were pretty close despite living far apart — so I took the day off because I was completely useless with anything else. I posted a bunch of photos of him/us to his Facebook page and said goodbye in my own way, and all day I read all the other stuff posted by his other grieving friends. It was about all I could do since I wasn’t able to actually visit in person, and being able to do it was surprisingly cathartic.
I know this kind of thing is hardly new, though. For years Facebook has made it possible for family to “memorialize” their loved one’s account, allowing people to keep visiting and posting to it indefinitely. I’m sure other companies do it too… The first time I’d heard of something like it was many years ago when a story came out about The WELL online community which allowed someone’s account to remain active after his death. At the time that sounded a little morbid, but these days it seems like the obvious thing to do, and now I get it.
This stuff leads me to ask a few questions, the obvious one being: what are people going to read/say when I’m gone? My internet presence, in one form or another, goes all the way back to 1994 (and BBS systems going back to the mid-80s). If anyone cared enough they could dig through it all and probably get a pretty good picture of who I am and what I was like, and how my beliefs and attitudes evolved over the years. I’ve never really thought about what happens to all of that when I’m no longer here, so…am I happy with the “story” I’ve unwittingly left behind? Or does it really matter since, you know, I’ll be dead?
I’ve thought a lot about this while going back and reading a bunch of my older stuff, and I think I’m OK with it. There are posts I totally forgot about that crack me up when I find them, and there are things that make me cringe a bit. Especially on Facebook when I went through my Asshole Atheist period a few years ago (I’m pretty sure I’ve mellowed since then, anyway). But it was all honestly written at any particular time, so I can at least say I was being authentic…even if I was sometimes being an authentic twat.😀 Not nearly as bad as some of the unbelievably vile and hateful crap I see on Twitter and YouTube comments, though. Now there’s some stuff I wouldn’t want my name permanently attached to, alive or not!
So considering how much of our lives we tend to put online, it strikes me as a sort of “passive immortality.” After all, most of these big companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Instagram, etc. aren’t going anywhere any time soon. The big players in the social media game are seemingly here to stay, and all this stuff we’re sharing with the world will be available for anyone to look at for many years to come (assuming you or your family don’t delete it!). It’s something right out of sci-fi stories — people transferring their minds and “souls” onto data cubes or whatever — and I’m starting to feel like it’s becoming a kinda-sorta reality…in a sort of clunky, disorganized way. And speaking of sci-fi stories, if you want to see an extreme take on this subject, check out the Black Mirror episode called “Be Right Back.” It’s suuuuuper creepy, but maybe something that could actually happen someday.
There’s a strange wrinkle to this, though. A few days after John was gone, a message from him appeared on Facebook. Apparently his mom had taken control of his account and was letting people know about memorial services, etc. I figured that was probably a good idea, since she wasn’t normally on Facebook and people could give their condolences that way. But soon it began to feel a little weird, because she continued to post and “like” stuff, even sent me a couple of private messages about this or that. I eventually had to mute him (her) because it was just too painful having his name and photo keep popping up as if he were still around. I know she meant well, but…I just can’t.
I also think people should be able to easily opt out of being part of this future “existence”, though that’s nearly impossible at this point. The Right to be Forgotten movement attempts to give people some choice in the matter, but apparently the process of making Google remove you from certain search results (the data stays, it’s just not linked to your name) involves an ungodly amount of hoops to jump through. Maybe they’re hoping people will get frustrated and give up…
Anyway, I’ve come to find some amusement in the possibility of someone in the year 2116 somehow running across that massive compilation of blonde jokes I put online ages ago and thinking “What the…?” Or maybe that shitty photo you took with your Motorola Razr phone and uploaded to Friendster in 2004 will someday pop up in an online collection of “primitive social intercommunication technologies.” Who knows, maybe in the future everyone’s past online life will be like a virtual museum exhibit.
Hmmm, I’m actually not sure how I feel about that one. Kinda sounds like another Black Mirror episode…