In Part I of this series, I mentioned the new Facebook settings that allow us to plan for our own death. We can now write willson Facebook for Facebook, designating beneficiaries for our social media lives or choosing to end (i.e. delete) our social media life along with our analog end. This procedural shift on Facebook’s behalf speaks loudly in that it not only recognizes the perhaps problematic phenomenon of death on Facebook, but it also forces users to question their own social media use and how they’d like to live postmortem on Facebook. Rather than continuing to explore research and journalistic pieces that discuss the cultural and emotional effects of digitized mourning in others, I will use this final post of my series on digitized death and mourning to explore and write my own digital will and testament.
I have never discernibly mourned on Facebook. I have “liked” RIP pages in order to observe, and thus in a way participate, in others’ displayed grief and I have once or twice posted to Facebook a photograph that features my late father, thus inviting others to perceive it as a post of mourning and to engage with it likewise. However, that’s it. I have never posted in an RIP group or page, or on the wall of a deceased individual. I have never posted a status or image containing grief-ridden content to Facebook. In fact, overall, and perhaps more demonstrably than others, I have kept my strong emotions of all kinds off of Facebook. This method of social media engagement works for me, I am pleased with the emotional role Facebook has thus played in my life. But it is important to note that I have not experienced the often perceived as positive experience that is Facebook mourning. This personal experience (or lack thereof) perhaps casts new light on my previous posts in this series, where I cannot help but convey digitized mourning with several negative connotations.
Regardless of its potentially objective positive or negative effects, Facebook mourning is somewhat unavoidable. It has been clearly indoctrinated as a process, a use of the social media platform. Regardless of any action I take, if someone I know passes, there is a very strong chance I experience their passing in part, if not completely, via Facebook. Furthermore, more often than not, I am informed of a death through displays of grief found on Facebook. The fact that, when I pass, the event of my own death will be recognized by the platform of Facebook is almost undisputable.
So, if I am not in full support of Facebook mourning, I should use Facebook’s new settings to opt into having my account permanently erased upon the event of my death, right? This more than anything else would limit the ability for others to mourn me on social media. “Friends” could still make a page or group as well as post their statuses and pictures as they wish, but wall posts and inboxes and tagging would be off limits, greatly limiting the scope of the performance(s) of grief. Nevertheless, for some reason, I can’t bring myself to subscribe to this fate.
Just as humans appease fears of death through beliefs in afterlife, so might the idea of everlasting social media presence be comforting. My Facebook is a carefully curated version of myself. Continuous work over time has been put into living this second, or reflected, life online. Dooming the archive of this work to a fate of oblivion is somewhat unfathomable. But along the same lines, imagining this version of myself living on stagnantly, or under the control of others, seems unnatural as well. The profile becomes a memorial (see Part III of series), and is social media how I want to be memorialized? Do I want how I am remembered as a human to be somewhat limited by the lens and parameters of Facebook’s platform? No. I don’t think I do. And yet, I still can’t bring myself to alter my settings and doom myself to social media death upon analog passing…
Maybe I’m attracted to being mourned on Facebook. I have stated that I am put off by some performances of grief online in part due to how they often appear to use a death as cultural capital, or leverage for “likes.” But if I were the deceased, I would be the cultural capital, and there’s something very appealing about that.
So that leaves me with the second option of Facebook’s new settings, choosing a “legacy contact.” As stated in Part I of this series,a legacy contact is a designated individual who may take control of one’s Facebook account after one’s death. My legacy contact would have limited control over my profile after my passing, with the ability to change featured images, write a special pinned post to my timeline, and accept friend requests. Most importantly, however, once I pass and this legacy contact takes over my account, Facebook will add the word “Remembering” to the top of my profile, before my name.
The word “remembering” breaks the illusion that one can live on through social media. No matter how much work I put in towards constructing a narrative of my life online, it remains relevant only in its given cultural moment. The platform of Facebook is extremely temporal and it is used much more heavily to engage with the current existence of others and one’s self than with archived existences. When someone passes, you may go through his or her digital archive, but it is in an act of “remembering.” There is no way for a profile to continue its mode of existence after time begins passing post-mortem.
The illusion of “living on” is also fragmented by the introduction of a legacy contact that may “play” you on Facebook. Facebook use relies on user agency and there is no way to maintain this agency when one dies. Giving someone else agency over your account only highlights the fact that you are no longer a user. You are a relic of the past, an artifact that may only be repurposed and referenced by others in order to understand the past in relationship to the present.
In Part I of this series, I cited a 2010 piece by Brian Carroll and Kate Landry in which they claim, “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” (341). If my account remains online after I die, it becomes my gravestone, a new digital form for a traditional icon of grief. The Facebook account as gravestone simile is unsettling to say the least, but I think I will succumb to it nonetheless, and leave my Facebook (intact) behind when I pass. My reasoning is twofold. First off, in the 21st century, this digital gravestone will get many more visits than its non-digital, or analog, counterpart will. Whether healthier or not, Facebook grief is the new form mourning is taking and I am not one to deny others an outlet through which to grieve. Secondly, somewhat sad as it may be, many of my “friends” only know me as a user of Facebook. I find more and more of my interactions today happen online. Perhaps the digital shift simply allows me to have more “friends,” rather than symbolizing a shift in all friendships onto the digital world, but, regardless, I am known more by my Facebook “life” than by my life offline. To deny that second life its own form of death, as defined by the current norms of the platform, seems unfair.
In concluding this series, I leave you with these final thoughts… My work highlights how Facebook mourning is far from unproblematic. Nevertheless, it also notes that some consider mourning on Facebook to be a positive, if not healthy and healing, process. Regardless of how you feel, it is hard to deny the huge role death’s interaction with social media currently plays in our society. I do hope more research is done in considering the costs/benefits of transferring grief online, but more than that, I hope we as users begin to pay more attention to how and why we grieve online. As with many actions taken on social media, the processes of displaying grief online are becoming indoctrinated. We may begin to think there is a right way to respond to death on social media and in that moment we do ourselves the most harm. Grief does not fit into a mold. I encourage users to respond to loss in the ways they see fit for their mental health and wellbeing, but I also urge them to always consider how and why Facebook is being taken up as a means of expression and to acknowledge the risks, benefits, and limitations of this medium while engaging with it to receive and/or offer support.