In the old days it was standard (if a slightly morbid) practice in major newsrooms to prep obituaries of famous persons. Elizabeth Taylor famously outlived her own New York Times obituary writer Mel Gussow by six years. But when Jagjit Singh died the first stories were all about the reactions of the Twitteratti. On the Bengali newscast later that evening, half of the time was taken up by translations of the Twitter reactions from the likes of Shreya Ghoshal and Mahesh Bhatt.
When photographer Gautam Rajadhyakhsa died in September, the news spread like wildfire, tomtomming through the viral networks of social media. But it was all about what Shobhaa De (his cousin), and Amitabh Bachchan and Lata Mangeshkar had tweeted. Reading the coverage I couldn’t even figure out who he was survived by – once the standard stuff of any decent obituary.
In the age of social media, obituaries have turned into a string of tweets.
And it creates the grieving lemmings phenomenon. When Steve Jobs died millions of us became iSad. Before social media, his death would have just been front page news. We might have reflected on his accomplishments, talked about it over coffee at work, or as we plugged in our iPod but would it have become our “status”? When Thomas Edison died did everyone run around wearing RIP Edison or burnt-out light-bulb badges? Did the Jobs social media storm feed on itself creating days of wall-to-wall coverage on the front pages of so many Indian newspapers, a country where Apple had little footprint?
Perhaps it’s only to be expected. Social media has slowly been changing the way we live. So why not the way we die? And the way we are remembered?
Most of us noticed the change first on Facebook. I remember the strange feeling the first time I got a “friend suggestion” for a person who was dead. It was both creepy and weirdly soothing to know that in the eternal sunshine of Facebook’s mind we could still become friends. Facebook sees dead people.
A few years ago war photographer Ashley Gilbertson put together a moving photo essay of the bedrooms of young American soldiers who had died in Iraq. Those rooms were frozen in time, immaculately preserved by grieving mothers – the bed neatly made, the teddy bear propped up against the pillows, the sports memorabilia on the wall, the photograph of the high-school sweetheart.
Social media is creating its own versions of those bedrooms – preserved in the amber of Internet ether.
At some level it is therapeutic. In today’s world where our friends are scattered across many time zones, where we know people but not their families, mourning loss is infinitely more complex. When an old colleague succumbed to cancer last week, I learned about her death through the Facebook status update of a mutual friend . I went to her wall and was touched by the tributes and memories shared on it. I could reconnect with long-lost colleagues from a pre-social media life by looking at that wall. There was something real about that shared moment of virtual coming together, that stopping by on the Facebook wall of a friend who died far away in New York.
But at the same time when I clicked on a friend’s profile a year after his death I was a little taken aback by the acutely personal messages, a sort of overly public airing of breast-beating personal grief, of letters and messages to the deceased, where remembrance had become performance. This was different from leaving flowers at a gravesite. I felt I was eavesdropping on a spooky session of online planchette. Facebook had become a ouija board.
The garlanded photograph or the gravestone is different from a Facebook page. The cemetery is deliberately a space that is separate from our daily lives. A social media profile erases that separation disrupting what one scholar calls “the continuum between the desire to remember and the right to forget.” We can see the quizzes they had taken (what kind of cartoon character are you). We can see pictures of their vacations, the videos they had posted on the wall. We can tag them in our photos. We can keep talking to them as if they were alive.
A man uses an iphone to photograph tributes to Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs. Getty
Lee Keyes, director of the Counseling Center at Harvard tried to draw the line. “If the person is engaging in dialogue on Facebook or Twitter as though the person was still alive, then that would be a sign of a problem,” said Keyes. Social media makes it easy to do exactly that.
Social media was never really meant to deal with death. It was the creation of college students for whom getting laid was the issue.
Faced with mortality Facebook hastily came up with privacy policies in 2009 that said they could “memorialise” a profile if the death is documented for example, by a news article or obituary. Once that happens only approved friends can view the profile and leave messages.
That raises its own quandary. My mother is not on Facebook. If anything happens to me, who gets precedence in my Facebook world – she or one of my umpteen Facebook friends ( many of whom are really Facebook acquaintances)? Do all of them suddenly become my next of kin?
And can these friends “unfriend” themselves if it gets too much, trapped in this virtual mausoleum?
After a friend was killed in an accident, his brother threw up his hands in despair wondering how on earth he would erase all his networks. Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Twitter, god knows what else. “This is worse than closing bank accounts,” he said. That just needed one death certificate. He said he was almost nostalgic for the old days when you all you needed to do was put in a little obituary notice in the newspaper.
“Our social networking sites describe in great detail our life cycles. They now include a social media obituary. Should the relationship status also include ‘Deceased?’” wonders Julie Spira, author of The Rules of Netiquette: How to Mind Your Manners on the Web.
Social media lets us live in many worlds. But it makes it tricky to then leave all of them at the same time.
Get ready for the Facebook funeral.
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