There was a boy who went to my high school; for the purpose of this blog we’ll call him Alex. Alex was kind but rather quiet, without too many close friends. In a grade of roughly 180, it was hard not to know someone and yet nobody I knew really knew Alex. He was rarely seen outside of school and had little to no social media presence in relation to the rest of our grade. I think I remember him posting a picture of his dog to Facebook once, with a funny anecdote, but even that’s a stretch to remember. I think he played on a sports team, but I can’t seem to remember which one. As far as high school went, Alex was pretty unmemorable. Until he died earlier this year.
I feel somewhat obliged to mention that Alex took his own life this past November, although I’m not sure how relevant that is to this conversation. I don’t want to get caught up in how our years in high school might shine light on the circumstances of Alex’s death as much as I want to focus on how they compare to the circumstances of memorializing that death.
The week Alex passed, I found it hard to go on social media. As I have previously encountered with the death of a known adolescent, images and personal remarks by others proliferated on Facebook, Instagram, and even Twitter. I found myself somewhat unreasonably enraged. I am a firm believer that there is no right or wrong way to mourn, but I couldn’t help thinking that what I was seeing was wrong. People who barely knew him were writing to Alex through his “wall,” commenting on how much they would miss him and the impact he had had on their lives. Others made statuses to the departed Alex, many of whom I believe to have done so because they weren’t even “friends” with him on the social media platform they were using to “mourn.” Some posted pictures, but due to the circumstances, many posted pictures of Alex alone, not even of themselves with the departed, as such images never had a chance to be taken. And then there are the hundreds of “likes” these social media activities accumulated; complete strangers of Alex, “liking” his post-mortem memorialization. Everyone has the right to grieve in however they see fit. I reminded myself of this fact as I stared at my “timeline” in disgust. But I struggled to see past the perceived performative vanity in some of these displays. I can’t help questioning the authenticity of social media mourning.
The situation I encountered after Alex’s passing replays itself everyday, as the world loses individuals alongside their digital avatars. The questions remain; is digitized mourning too performative? Is it “authentic” to mourn in ways that increase social media viewership and/or gain you digital “likes”? How do social media memorials allow for those removed from the death, whether spatially or socially, to engage in the mourning process in ways otherwise unavailable? What are the repercussions of this widespread invitation to mourn and in such public ways? Furthermore, how do “profiles” live on from beyond? When an adolescent passes, what becomes of their “virtual life” – does it live on without them or remain stagnant, freezing the individual in a time prior to their death?
This past week, Facebook rolled out new settings in the US, allowing users to plan for their death on social media, opting to have their account deleted when they pass or choosing to designate a “legacy contact,” who may take control of one’s account after death. This legacy contact will be able to change a deceased user’s profile picture and cover photo, write a “special post” pinned to the top of the deceased’s timeline, and accept friend requests from “from real-life friends and family who weren’t connected to the deceased on Facebook” (via). The legacy contact can also download a digital archive of the users shared information, including photos and posts. A final addition, once you pass, Facebook will add the word “Remembering” above deceased users’ names on their timelines.
We now have a say in how we chose to live on digitally after we pass, but this crucially enforces the fact that some aspect of social media life after death is no longer simply an option, but more so a given. In turn, we must answer the questions I have begun to raise in order to understand the meaning behind this growingly omnipresent social media activity post death.
Brian Carroll and Kate Landry claim in their 2010 article for the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Logging On and Letting Out: Using Online Social Networks to Grieve and to Mourn, that “what is happening on the profile pages of the deceased is nothing revolutionary but rather a new and in some ways logical platform for people to memorialize and to grieve. Their social networks are proving to be effective media forms for expressing and sharing grief because of the characteristics of the sites as artifacts of and developments in thanatechnology, and because of the psychological needs of people who are in mourning” (341). In comparing Facebook mourning to that of previous, “traditional rites and rituals,” Carroll and Landry find many “benefits or advantages of Facebook” (347). These advantages include the ability to transcend geographical distance in order to mourn, the access to an avenue to find “closure” in addressing the deceased, the capability to revisit old memories in realizing no new ones can be made, the access to a “non-intrusive” way to show one cares while avoiding “social awkwardness,” and a connectedness to other mourners within a “safe” community (348).
It is important to note that four and a half years have passed since the publishing of this piece, over which time we can presume much has changed in the societal uses of Facebook. That being said, I’d also push back on some of the perceived “advantages” of Facebook mourning as outlined by Carroll and Landry. The perpetual ability to revisit a lost one’s digital life or presence after they have passed leads to a constant renegotiation with the deceased that I would not expect to be entirely healthy. Similarly, I fail to see how social media mourning leads to closure as much as it may lead to a lingering of relationships that are otherwise largely inaccessible in the analog world. I also find social media mourning to be incredibly intrusive, to all those who knew the deceased, and I do not find communal mourning on Facebook to promise or presuppose any safety in space or community. Facebook is a place of extreme social scrutiny and fixation and to me appears as a quite unprotected and, for many, contrived place to grieve.
Through this blog series, I will use experience, research, and collaboration to continue to explore these personal feelings as well as the constantly changing aspects of digitized death and mourning. I will look more into the possible psychological repercussions of digitized death and mourning, the consequences of public mourning and the role of the “other” in online memorialization, and the place of the profile post-mortem in allowing individuals to live on forever and/or remain suspended in time.