Dying on Facebook

1994 Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorative U.S. silver dollar proof, detail
Creative Commons License photo credit: kevindooley

“Last week, his cousin announced on his Facebook wall that he was missing and asked everybody to contact her if we’d seen him,” my friend told me. “The next day she wrote that they’d found him, dead. Just like that.” We’re finally getting used to learning about our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives through Facebook. Will we ever become accustomed to learning about their deaths that way?

Since the death of this man, whom I knew only very remotely, I’ve been drawn to his Facebook profile and wall. Friends and family have converted his wall into a sort of collective memorial, posting favorite photos and sharing memories. Regrets at having missed opportunities to spend time with him mingle with frustrations over his untimely death, condolences to his family, and a sprinkling of terse “R.I.P.’s.” I find myself deeply touched by the fond stories, funny photographs, and raw pain on the wall of this person I barely knew.

His cousin’s disorienting but necessary announcement makes starkly visible the line between how we talk about the living and how we speak of the dead. What’s so striking is the tonal difference between his status updates and others’ memorials of him. The “alive” portion of his wall is gorgeously quotidian: he reminds people to vote, repeats overheard conversations, recommends art exhibits and music videos. After his death, most friends’ wall memorials have been anything but commonplace. Everyone achingly strains to sum up his life and impact and goodness. Many, many posts begin with “words cannot describe…” and “I don’t know what to say.” All grope toward a summarizing, synthesizing effect.

In a way, the wall simply reifies what death does: death raises the stakes, rips us from the everyday, and makes it difficult to speak. Because death is or seems absolute, it compels us to make grandiose statements about our dead loved ones. But outside this relatively new world of online social networking, a person’s unremarkable, incremental self-representations are rarely juxtaposed so closely with others’ monumental eulogies.

Facebook instituted an official “deceased policy” in October 2009. Once Facebook is notified of a death, the company “memorializes” the deceased’s account, closing it to new friend requests, making contact information invisible, and inviting existing friends to post memories to the “memorialized” wall. But memorialization also deletes the person’s history of status updates, in order to “protect the deceased’s privacy.” Memorialization, then, effaces that unique juxtaposition between self-representation and eulogy, between cumulative everyday existence and grand but inadequate final remembrances.

Facebook and other social networking sites have no graceful path out of this and similar dilemmas. An unavoidable feature of death is that it collapses a person’s control over her own public identity; any mediation of that collapse by a company will necessarily feel disturbing.

For now, my acquaintance’s Facebook account hasn’t been “memorialized,” and I hope it never is, although Facebook is working on ways to detect member deaths automatically. If he had lived longer, undoubtedly he would have removed some or all of his youthful status updates, and possibly he would not have wanted electronic immortality for many of his fleeting thoughts. Still, it seems wrong to deprive his survivors of those few self-expressive moments that remain on his Facebook page.

Comments

  1. Valerie says:

    this is a great post. i’ve witnessed this a few times and it is so very fascinating. and i agree, even if they are silly, the “alive” posts leave us with a glimpse of that person that still feels present.

  2. Hillary says:

    Spot-on, Talia. I’ve been unsettled by this whole phenomenon ever since a good friend passed away and I received a “Friendster” (remember Friendster?) reminder for her birthday a few weeks later– and every year since. I think Facebook is to be commended for trying to find an appropriate policy for this, even as you point out some disturbing implications. One wonders if there would be a way for family members to access that content before it’s deleted, too.

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