February 12, 2013

Digital Ghosts: Death And Social Media

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A few months ago, a long lost friend I grew up with and who I haven’t seen in probably ten years passed. For the sake of privacy I’ll refer to him as simply “D.” For some reason, probably the same reason you are connected to people you once knew but no longer talk to, we were friends on Facebook.

I can’t remember who friended who, or how we came to be friends on the site, but I can recall the two or three fleeting instances when one of us reached out to the other, be it to grab a beer or to reminisce about some inane inside joke that had us cracking up sitting in the back row of church.

Whatever connection the two of us had was now simply a declining digital recognition of each other through a massive, insanely popular social media platform.

I can also recall how I came to hear about his passing. It started with a mutual friend’s status saying, “I’m confused, does anyone know what happened to D?”

Curiosity grabbed me and I entered his name into the Facebook search bar. In the next few minutes of perusing his profile page I was met with myriad sentimental messages, tagged photos of old friends and well wishes that he would never see but that remained, in a strange remembrance of him as an awesome, funny, and great guy.

He had passed, that was clear, but I was still curious in wondering how and why. I had my suspicions but I couldn’t be sure.

The reason for his passing wouldn’t come to light for another week and when it did, it was in the form of an overheard reverent conversation between my parents and the pastor of the church I haven’t attended in many years.

He had taken his own life.

There didn’t seem to be a good reason for what had happened. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, he was engaged to a very sweet girl and the people in his family were good, kind, and gracious people. Apparently though, there had been hidden a deep nasty depression that eventually became too much to bear.

In my own battle with depression and mental illness, I’ve heard countless stories of hitting rock bottom, of going in and out of mental hospitals and of being so depressed that the only solution seems to be ending things permanently. I’ve even formed a preferred method, for myself, of exiting this world should the need arise.

Regardless, there seems to be a certain look, a sense of detachment, a forced smile or a sadness, bewilderment or desperation in the eyes of those that have experienced that deep, indescribable pain. It can be very easily overlooked by the lay, but for those who recognize it it’s clear. Looking back over Facebook pictures of D, the look was very clearly there. At dark times, I wonder if that look pervades my own face and if it does, can others see it? I can only hope that if they do, they will step in, and at the very least, engage me in a conversation about what it means to be alive.

What point am I trying to make here though?

I’m trying to say Facebook is a shitty way to find out about something like that.

For several weeks after his death, I can recall seeing sponsored posts by Facebook saying, “D and 2 other friends like Mitt Romney, you should too,” or “D and 2 other friends like Walmart, you should too.” Frankly, it sickened me that D’s name was posthumously being used as a commercial to promote things. Let alone things that, over my years, I had developed a deep aversion to — but that’s beside the point.

Seems a bit insensitive, doesn’t it?

Even if he were alive and well, the use of his name — let alone anyone’s name — as a means to promote something doesn’t seem to sit quite right. I could ruminate on the sickening aspects of social media for a long time but the weird fact remains. Even if D is gone, his profile page is still there.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, the world death rate is 7.99 deaths per 1000 population per year. More simply, the rate results in about 107 worldwide deaths per minute or 1.8 deaths every second.

Forgive me for the morbid statistical analysis, but at 7.99 deaths per thousand per year with Facebook’s more than 500 million reported users, over 3,995,000 people have passed who were on Facebook this year alone.

That’s 3,995,000 static pages per year on the platform that no longer record a digital account of a human being’s life. Instead, these pages hold the dwindling well wishes of tens, if not hundreds of friends or acquaintances that mattered to the people who passed.

That’s kind of crazy to think about, huh?

There are even websites dedicated to this concept of a virtual memorial.The site MyDeathSpace.com tracks social media profiles of those who have passed. It has archives of nearly 18,000 people and receives approximately 11,000 views per day. The U.K.’s Virtual Memorial Garden, which started in 1995, contains an alphabetized collection of tens of thousands of user submitted memorials to the departed as well.

Nobody likes to think about death, and Facebook is no different, as there is no easy or convenient way for family to alert the site of the deceased without sending an obituary or death certificate, though they have considered the reality of it.

“We believe we have put in effective policies that address the accounts that are left behind by the deceased,” said Fred Wolens, a Facebook spokesman. “When we receive a report that a person on Facebook is deceased, we put the account in a special memorialized state. Certain more sensitive information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and Wall are left up so that friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance. If we’re contacted by a close family member with a request to remove the profile entirely, we will honor that request.”

As time has passed, and the outpouring of love and support to D and his family has dwindled, his profile page, like millions of others, remains.
I’ve yet to decide if this digital marker of my friend’s life that remains and will remain unchanged for however long it’s there is a good thing or a bad thing.

What once was a periodically personally updated look into a man’s life, has become a digital memorial of sorts, remaining there for any one of his family or friends to peruse and reminisce. Be it the time they were 13 and sneaking into their dad’s beer for the first time or the initial correspondence of a friendship that developed into love, those memories will remain and sit there, collecting digital dust among the collection of friends or acquaintances that populate our internet social media circle

This is a remembrance that I’m sure will remain pervasive amongst his most loved (family/fiancée) as they visit the page daily, but sadly, and this is the part that gets me, his hundreds of friends or acquaintances will likely only look at this profile turned memorial page once, twice maybe three times, as I have, and in the next moment return to pictures of cute cats with only the smallest fleeting thought of the kind of guy D was.

Nearly every day, D’s mom posts and tags D in a picture of one of the many paintings he did over the last few years. A hobby I, and I’m sure a good number of his friends, never knew he had. It bothered me at first — I don’t think the deceased and their work should be on display like that so soon after, but I realize that she is grieving and wants to remember D in whatever way she can. It serves, though, as a valuable reminder not only of the times we had, but of the fragility of life itself.

I or you or your mom or brother could pass at any point.

Who are we but animals trying to make a name for ourselves and to be remembered however possible? Social media serves that function.

For all its downsides, maybe with the rise of social media and the internet at large, no matter who we are, a mark of us will remain. Maybe we are no longer doomed to be just dust in the wind. TC mark

Michael Hedrick

Michael Hedrick is a writer and photographer in Boulder, CO. His work has appeared in Salon, The Week, Scientific …

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