Mark Brand asks, where do we go to die online? And if you’re not on social media, how can you prove you exist?
So I just finished a Master’s degree and I spent the summer catching up on a lot of things, most recently my Facebook friend list. There were large stretches of 2011 and 2012 where I couldn’t follow my Facebook feeds and, as every social media junkie knows, absence makes the heart grow stalky-er. Zuckerberg and Co. haven’t made it easy; every time I log in they’ve changed the format in some small way that now more efficiently thrusts everyone’s self-promotion carpet-bombing to the top of my feeds, and buries the posts about how one of my relatives is ill or I have a new extended family member. KELLY BENNET THINKS YOU SHOULD LIKE KELLY BENNET’S NAILS AND SPA. I do not like Kelly Bennet’s Nails and Spa. I like pictures of my family members and gossip about my old friends, and I like to hear when my writing colleagues succeed. End of story, Facebook.
I blew a few hours or so in August just reviewing my entire friends list and shutting off the feeds of spam repeat offenders and people for whom breakfast is a status update. I don’t want to dick around with the list function. For one, it’s harder to make the mobile app obey this filtering system, and for another making lists is a little too super-villain-y for my tastes. The units I’m shuffling around like some sort of cyber-God with a deck of trading cards are people, the overwhelming majority of whom I genuinely care about. So I just zeroed in on the loud ones who post a threshold-breaking volume of pointless crap and I muted them for the sake of simplicity. I made a startling discovery during this process: I think a few of my friends are dead.
It was bound to happen eventually. The Internet Generation comes of age in proto-chatrooms, raises hell with Napster in college, gets jobs with Monster, Craigslist, and LinkedIn, has kids on Facebook/Instagram/Etsy/mommy boards, etc., and then dies on—
On what, exactly? Not Facebook. Not Twitter or Pinterest.
I landed on the profile of a former classmate and discovered, to my growing horror, that the only thing on her feed from the past year and a half were posts from a couple of her close friends saying things like, “I miss you so much, I love you”, and “I miss you every day, _________.” Her last self-posted update was from mid-2010 and made no mention of an intent to leave Facebook or give up on social media or go live on a desert island or become the guest of a state prison system, so I can only assume the worst: someone I’ve known for many years has died on the Internet.
I’ve had my sad share friends and family members pass away over the years, but this felt wrong in a whole new way. This was someone who had long since ceased being an IRL friend and was, for the last portion of our acquaintance, a permanently online friend. My grief, if you can call the unconfirmed ominous disappearance of a friend from the Internet grief, had new questions to ask me: where do they go when they’re not online anymore? A firewalled mausoleum? A little hole in the ground without WiFi? Is that where the Internet Generation rests?
Social media is a strange city to walk the streets of, and existence isn’t as straightforward as it seems. There are still the occasional handful of people who completely eschew both the Internet and social media and therefore exist to their distant online friends like Schroedinger’s cats, both alive and dead. I have a cousin like this, a great friend since childhood, who owns no computer, participates in no social media, and has an old-style dumb-phone that he rarely ever picks up. He’s not a shut-in or socially backward, he just doesn’t give a shit about being online. I’m not sure if he realizes how much this unnerves the large number of friends he has who adore him as much as I do. Likewise, I was engaged once to another woman before I met my wife, a tech-savvy Gen Y-er who spent as many hours per day on the computer as I did. This person for the last decade has had zero Internet presence. At first this felt like a relief, but with time it became unsettling, like a reverse ghost story of an individual whose memory fades and disappears but whose actual person may still walk the earth. And why is that eerie? Aren’t you supposed to forget people like that? Isn’t that the way it was done prior to 2004? I think that’s the idea, except Kelly Bennet still insists I should like her nail salon, and I haven’t spoken to Kelly in 20 years, and when I did we weren’t even close friends.
So if I did make lists of friends—and I don’t, but if I did—they would look like this: Family, Friends, Authors, Profiles of Unending Hilarious Drama, and Everyone Else. This is more or less supported by Facebook’s interface, which is even so kind as to thrust particularly vocal, argumentative, controversial, or otherwise trainwrecky posts to the top of my feed, making my cyber-judging of their originators super convenient. But no place in this system of socialization-by-proxy is there a social media cemetery.
There’s the occasional Someone-is-Slowly-Dying sequence, where people (half of whom don’t eventually actually die) post ghoulish pictures of themselves with sad looks on their faces as they shave their heads mid-chemotherapy, or close-ups of gruesome scars from their surgical procedures. There are family-style posts about parents having quadruple bypass surgeries where clusters of lifelong friends come together to comfort those dealing with scary or life-altering events. There is even the rare moment when a long-ignored friend request from a person known to be dead for years is auto-approved by the account settings or approved by a living user who finally logged into their account, prompting a “(dead friend) is now friends with (living friend)” entry on the feeds, and the deceased’s friends all get that digital “someone stepped over my grave” feeling. But there is no straightforward place for simple retrospective grief, no Twitter Valhalla where our online departed dine at table in a land where the sun never sets.
Online places for the dead do exist, just not on social media. These are the forgotten thousands of heart-breaking little HTML family sites, with five pictures of the deceased and a blog that they wrote about how their pledge drive to help their family survive financially after the second bone marrow transplant didn’t quite meet its goal. They say thank you to the network of friends who cared enough to stop by in person and often feature an extended eulogy of the departed by their widow or widower or child, in the low, wavering tone of an abandoned puppy. These I hate for obvious reasons: their insubstantial, transitory nature, their inability to encapsulate the sorts of lasting dignified sadness that memorializes their subject, their grimness and embarrassing over-sharing.
There is no digital headstone that archives how special a person was after they’re gone, and the time is quickly approaching when there will need to be. There is some argument over how long they will live, but the Baby Boomers, the first of whom reached age 65 in 2011 and will reach their average life expectancy just 15-18 years from now, remain a disproportionately huge percentage of our population. I’m admittedly not a demographer, but my Arby’s-napkin calculations seem to suggest that if those life expectancy numbers are accurate, something like half of the original 79 million Baby Boomers will die within the next 20-25 years. Their passing will not be business as usual, is what I’m saying, or something we can callously minimize or ignore; it’s going to be spectacular. As CNN and USA Today reminded us recently, Americans are no longer having enough children to replace our population, meaning the Boomers will feel like the “pig in the python” of our population they always have been, until they die. If you’re wondering whether they’ll act like they’re the first generation that’s ever done it, or whether businesses that supply bulk flowers and black clothing are a good investment, we’re going to have to wait and see, but on this I’m relatively certain: they are also the current fastest growing demographic of social media users. What is social media going to be like during this slow-but-staggering generational shift? Will our feeds be just as permanently shaped and distorted by this decades-long passing as our work lives and our culture will be?
All of this makes me wonder what sort of place the Internet is to die, and if there might someday be a “right” way to handle it that’s lasting and meaningful. As things are now, when the last tweets fade to the bottom of the page, there is only the continued onrush of LOLcats and engagement photos as a requiem. And Kelly, who still insists, every day, that I like her nail salon.
Originally appeared at the Weeklings
Mark R. Brand is the author of the novels Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), Life After Sleep (2011), The Damnation of Memory (2011), and the upcoming short story collection Long Live Us (CCLaP; September 9, 2013) as well as the editor of the 2009 anthology Thank You, Death Robot. He is a two-time Independent Publisher Book Award winner and is the creator and host of the video podcast series Breakfast With the Author (available on iTunes). A native of northern New York, he now lives in Evanston, IL, with his wife and son, and teaches English at Wilbur Wright College. He is currently completing a PhD in English with a focus in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.