This morning I got a familiar Facebook email: “Let <Person Name> know you are thinking about her on her birthday today”. Normally this notification instantly prompts an instant swipe left or panicked text in lieu of a card depending on the person but this morning’s notification was a little different.
“Let Julie Nelson know you are thinking about her on her birthday” except I couldn’t, Julie (not real name) died three and a half years ago. This got me thinking not just about Julie and my friendship with her but the online legacy and connections we leave behind. I was not particularly close to Julie but she is still missed. She was my first friend to die, not an elderly relative but someone I met through quirks of fate and got on with. She was also my first Facebook friend to die.
We live our life online now – where we are, what we are doing, who we are with, what we are watching, when we’ve had a good day and when we’ve had a bad day – it’s all there in a constant stream of information. Online personas are so real that friendships can form and flourish despite people rarely, or never, meeting. Profiles are alive, chatting away about everything and nothing microblogging every little event. When someone dies that living profile falls silent.
After a friend passes away you’ll see their last post on their profile; Often nothing profound, no heartfelt goodbye just another little tweet, another update, another ripple in that constant stream of conciousness. One day ago. Two days ago. One week ago. 38 Weeks ago. 1 year ago. Still you feel that any second they’ll pop online to tell everyone that they’ve “just finished season 2 of The Good Place and it was amazing”. That’s what’s odd about it, the profile doesn’t die, it just doesn’t speak any more.
Historic posts stand out primarily because they are unremarkable. When people die we often paint an idealised picture of them, remembering their best or at least their most distinctive traits. Our social media profiles stand out because of their banality. It's a record not of all our most profound moments, but the everyday and unimportant.
Throughout history our relationships have been predominantly based on physical presence and when someone died that presence was lost forever. We wouldn’t see that person again, the only signs of them are photographs in a drawer and memories. Now more of our relationships are based on an online presence and when someone dies that presence lingers, but it remains frozen in time, always looking and feeling the same as it did when they were alive. It’s something we’ll have to deal with more and more, the online presence that we know and love being just a few clicks away but knowing it’ll never speak again.
I’ve noticed that friends and family will still send tweets and Facebook posts to a friend or relative who has passed away. They leave messages chatting to them and saying how much they are missed, particularly on the deceased’s birthday or a special family occasion. This highlights how they may be gone but some online presence and connection remains.
We know the processes behind saying goodbye to the people we lose In Real Life (IRL). In most cases it follows a familiar path: Family and friends find out and share the news, perhaps phoning numbers from an address book kept near the phone. After a few days a funeral date is set and people arrive, gathering in rows facing a coffin to hear stories from the person’s life. Once the funeral is finished people are invited for sandwiches and sausage rolls in a nearby pub or hotel before the last few make it back to for drinks at a relative’s house.
But how do we mourn online? Should there be a process? The first problem is finding out. Let’s say I die suddenly. I have 4,343 twitter followers. I imagine that within a few days less than 0.5% of my twitter followers would have had a message or a tweet to tell them. It’ll then be up to those few people to tell others or maybe send a tweet themselves which will reach some of our Mutuals. There won’t be a notification for most people, it’ll be luck whether you find out or not, lost in the mix of the daily gifs, news stories and event live-tweets of your normal online day.
Even if your followers do notice your death, most won’t attend your funeral. If they happen to find out the place and time would they be comfortable sitting in the pews with the tearful relatives of a person they’d never met in person? Organised mourning is reserved for geoproximate relationships. Online relationships might result in the same sense of shock and loss, but are left without the structure of mourning we’ve been familiar with.
Perhaps if we acknowledge that our online relationships with people can be as important to us as the friends and neighbors around us it’s time to think about how we say goodbye and what we’ll leave behind. We need fast and easy processes to share news of a passing and perhaps a way to say goodbye, not by traveling somewhere to weep in front of a coffin but to say goodbye in the way that we said hello, online.
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