Unfriending the dead

Some months ago, a member of my family died who had an intermittent presence on Facebook.  At her husband’s request, the profile was taken down.  This made sense.  The deceased had left few traces of herself online, and bumping into her name, as if she were still with us, was painful.

But what of those who, over the years, have produced a rich trove of content on Facebook, expressing the tastes and opinions – the everyday comments and humor – of a vibrant human life?  The good we do may be interred with our bones, but our Facebook posts live after us, and family and friends may see in them a lasting remnant of a beloved personality.  They may wish to preserve the account to honor the memory of the dead.

In a recent conversation on this subject, someone pointed out to me the problem posed by continuing activity in a dead person’s Facebook account.  The usual banter and joking would be clearly out of the question, but there would be no one to police the posts.  If the account were left active, impropriety in content would be difficult to avoid.  If the account were somehow frozen, however, the effect might feel less like a living memory than a mausoleum.  And even if most family members wished to keep the account online, there might be others who find the enduring public presence of the dead disturbing.

“Then they can unfriend the account,” I countered reflexively.

The fifth wave of information is a destroyer of customs, habits, and traditions.  On this blog, I have dealt frequently enough with the political effects of this demolition – but on a daily basis the most powerful effects are cultural, often baffling our sense of right and wrong both morally and from the perspective of polite behavior.

In the swirl of the digital storm, we are likely to feel confused and disoriented:  culturally naked.  What does it mean for me to unfriend the dead – what message am I sending?  How is this stranger than maintaining a fictitious connection to a dead person’s chatty web page?  Can one poke the dead?

For obvious reasons, death is the locus of our strongest-held values and beliefs.  An array of institutions works to ritualize death in our culture as in every other.  Religion consoles our fears and our loss.  Funeral homes sell coffins and arrange viewings of the deceased.  Cemeteries, at a price, provide a final resting ground.  Specific attitudes, phrases, and facial expressions are demanded, quite firmly, of the bereaved.  On occasion, murdering husbands and wives have been found out because they were unable to falsify these ritual requirements.

Yet a growing proportion of who we are is captured in digital information:  and digital information never dies.  That is a problem for young people who, on the spur of the moment, post boozy photos of themselves on Flickr, and for politicians who indulge on Twitter their exhibitionist cravings.  These digital blunders will cast a shadow over their real-world pursuits forever.

It is also a problem for those stricken by the loss of a close friend or family member:  the digital portion of their dead lives on.  The publicness advocated by Jeff Jarvis here has an unforeseen consequence.  Public life continues after private death.  Once upon a time, there was a sharp distinction between those who had access to the public sphere and the silent masses – also between the public and personal aspects of our lives.  Those distinctions have vanished, and with them our ability to compose ourselves as the occasion requires.  The privately dead can still share philosophical ruminations on a blog, sports trivia or fart jokes on Facebook.

When a social network like Facebook boasts about “giving people the power to share,” it’s unlikely it meant with the dead.  The company is seven years old, the founder is 28:  to this demographic, death is just another word for nothing left to post.  Not surprisingly, then, Facebook’s policy for dealing with digital afterlife sounds like a weird combination of IT chatter and funeral parlor jargon.  “When a user passes away,” explains the Facebook Help Center, “we memorialize the account to protect their [sic] privacy.”  Memorializing means “only confirmed friends can see the profile” or “leave posts in remembrance.”  (A more fulsome explanation of the policy can be found here.)

Of course, the heart of the matter isn’t Facebook’s awkwardness in managing an event beyond its youthful imagination.  It’s cultural vertigo.  The lack of guideposts around the most dreadful of transitions imposes a sense of radical uncertainty, even horror, on the public.  A casual search easily turns up users who think Facebook’s “memorializing” is “scary,” and others who found it wantonly destructive and arbitrary:

. . . FB doesn’t seem to have responded or taken any action to undo the hurt you are causing to grieving families like mine. My 19 year old son’s FB was memorialised to protect it from hacking following his sudden tragic death. There was absolutely no warning given about all his comments and postings being deleted. All his friends and our family have now been caused the additional pain of losing all his written contributions to our lives without having the opportunity to save them first. This is the age of the internet, where people don’t write letters any more, and for FB to remove them without reason or warning is unforgiveable.

 In the age of the internet, we expect the dead to live in word and image, and not be creepy, or undignified, or painful – yet we have evolved the cultural mechanisms to achieve exactly none of these goals.  When it comes to the digitally undead, as with many domains of the information revolution, we’re making things up as we go:  and the question troubling my mind is whether, at the present speed of change, the evolution of new, more appropriate customs is possible.

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4 Responses to Unfriending the dead

  1. When I was in Middle School and High School, I used a handle rather than my real name. Not because I wanted to be anonymous; if people asked I never hesitated to tell them what my name was. It was just because the culture of online forums and chat rooms (and to a certain extent, comment sections) is much more geared towards silly usernames that signal something about you. I used a handle not to hide, but because I thought it was awesome.

    I am so thankful that I did. Much of my activity from those days has been lost entirely–the forum that I created has, as far as I can tell, been deleted by the host due to disuse. But some remants of those days do exist for those who know where to look–but I will make sure no one does. I will take the pseudonym I used to my grave!

    But of course, I later started writing under my own name, and am resigned to leave it untouched. The bad poetry and angst on Sophistpundit, not to mention the indiscreet rants of the 19 and 20 year old, will be left as part of my legacy.

  2. Pingback: Death in the Modern World | The Ümlaut

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