This weekend’s New York Times published, “As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out.” The rather unsubstantial article discussed the issue of when a user dies and the profile remains, the strange and unique feeling of seeing the deceased friend reminder to “Keep In Touch,” on the left hand side of users’ homefeeds. It then devolved into the ways Facebook is trying to deal with the “death issue” especially because as they point out, “Now, people over 65 are adopting Facebook at a faster pace than any other age group, with 6.5 million signing up in May alone, three times as many as in May 2009.”
But this has always been an issue because even when Facebook was primarily a college-aged social network, as we know, college-aged kids still die. But when they die it’s often sudden and alarming and it has the power to bring larger numbers of “grief tourists” to the deceased Facebook page to explore, and gawk, and wonder. (Cyber grief tourism, a whole other article I’ll write some other time.)
For better or worse, it seems these days Facebook is the holder of the “most” information about its users’ lives. Unlike Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, etc., platforms where users might be posting aspects of their lives, highlighting projects or hobbies, but often times not revealing their whole selves, Facebook’s platform and user patterns ask for quite a lot of self reveal and to share pretty personal stuff with friends. Mark Zuckerberg said as much when he annoyingly declared that people no longer have multiple lives (like separate work life, social life, family life…) and if they do they are disingenuous. danah boyd (and myself) attacked that one. Easy to say we all have one life for a white, straight, Ivy League, rich guy. I digress.
For better or worse, Facebook is arguably the only place in our lives where our work friends, school friends, friend-friends, party friends, summer camp friends, parent’s friend’s friends, merge. It is also the principal platform for users to share sentiment, feelings and personal artifacts with one another and, oftentimes, share these personal relics to a vast and invisible audience. For 99% of your Facebook actions there are “friends” who are bearing witness. You are not left alone there. And so when we die it seems to have become the principal social networking site that mourners may think of less of as a social networking site and more as an invisible portal to the actual person. This, a unique social web 2.0 quirk, is both interesting and confusing.
I have Facebook friends who have died and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing how their Facebook profiles suddenly transform into an interactive mausoleum where users are able to share sentiment on their wall and comfort one another. These pages live on. Unlike other social networking sites that don’t allow this. That freeze in time, with the person’s last tweet, last blog update, static and alone and moving further and further away from us in time. This isn’t reassuring to go back to, when we miss our friend who is gone. These sites that just remind us of the time between when he was here, and when he was not.
I feel like I have seen a disproportionate amount of death this hot and muggy summer and I am trying to consider these experiences in the lens of how Facebook has become a socially appropriate place to mourn and grieve.
In the 1960’s Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross posited sequential stages of grief which included, “denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.” Otherwise known as the grief-cycle. I wonder if it’s primarily those who deny or those who have accepted who find comfort in messaging the deceased on their Facebook walls? I wonder if and how it may feel like a different act to the mourner to write a letter to the deceased person as opposed to posting a message on their Facebook wall?
When we post, we are posting publicly, people are bearing witness to our sentiments. But these “witnesses” are mostly an invisible audience and it’s difficult for users to realize the scope of all possible viewers. But they know it’s not private. What comfort does the invisible witnesses provide?
Standing around in all this black one warm grey day someone recently told me that we have no control over our lives. That it is life’s biggest illusion. That it’s an illusion that we think we have the ability to create control in routine, in relationships, in being good. That something happens suddenly—someone dies suddenly—and it feels a page of a book was just ripped out of our life. Or many, many pages.
It is curious what unique space Facebook is allowing mourners. It is curious to consider how people are seeing Facebook, not as code, not as somebody else’s social media platform, not as a place where web aggregators crawl and keywords ping, not as somebody else’s business, but just as a person they very much miss. It is remarkable, really, how closely people have allowed this platform to penetrate their lives, how much people ignore it–Facebook–to instead only see what and who they want to see. In the way that controlling our lives is one big, great illusion, so quite similarly is Facebook.