Facebook: a shrine for the digital age

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About two years ago a friend of mine died. He was a kind, genial and fun-loving man, and his death at a too young age came as a shock to his vast circle of friends and family. I remember the first time I accidentally came across his Facebook profile after his death: his profile photo was still the same, and for a moment it felt like he was still alive. His wall was being used by many of his friends to express their grief and loss. In fact, his wall was a testament to the suddenness of his death: a comment stating “Hey Stranger when we having coffee?! Its been years — literally!!!” was followed by “RIP my friend. We will miss you and your teasing.”

There was no official Facebook statement or icon that announced his death; only the content of the wall comments alluded to the fact that he was no longer with us. This is not Facebook’s fault. If someone dies, the family can let Facebook know, and the company will “memorialise” the page, meaning that they will “immediately purge the record of the deceased’s erstwhile contact information, membership in online groups, and “personal info” (favorite books, movies, quotations, and so on). But, for a month, the user’s wall, photographs, and basic information (hometown, birthdate, religion) are retained. One has to provide proof of the death as well to keep pranksters from memorialising their friends as a joke.

If Facebook is not notified of the death, then it’s the wall as usual. Two years later, people are still writing on my deceased friend’s wall. His son congratulates him on every birthday and Father’s Day, others comment on how much they still miss him. This is not unusual human behaviour: we have always visited the graves of our special ones, or lit a candle in their memory in a church, or placed flowers at the place their death occurred. What is interesting is that Facebook or other social media are now fulfilling this role. My friend’s son lives on another continent, so visiting his father’s graveside is not possible for him.

Jed Brubaker from the Department of Informatics at University of California’s topic of study is how death is dealt with on social networks. He comments on how, if the Facebook profile stays, it’s almost if the person keeps on living. He found that the deceased are often tagged in photos, or wished on their birthday (as is the case with my friend), and so the profile is constantly updated.

Brubaker mentions a comment left on a deceased friends wall: “Whoever is running Tony’s profile now…plz NEVER delete it.” Ironically nobody is “running” the profile, except for the very friends that keep on posting and tagging. Brubaker sees this as evidence that “ownership and identity extend beyond the authoring user.” He also talks about the phenomenon of people being addressed in heaven, as if heaven is a vacation spot on an island somewhere. As on person commented on my friends wall : “What are the trails like up there?” I find it interesting that Brubaker has actually named deceased Facebook users “extreme users”.

On a more macabre note, I came across Mydeathspace.com. It’s a site that is a directory of deaths and of how they occurred, written in a news reporting style. It bothered me that the details of how the death occurred become more important than the life the person had lead, which an obituary would normally focus on. I suppose Facebook could function as an obituary for a person.

It is, after all, a record of one’s life events, one’s family relations and the friends one had. I wonder if it would make a difference to the way one interacts with Facebook if one were to look it as one’s future obituary. According to Michaelanne Dye, who holds an MA in cyberanthropology from Georgia State University, it seems as if people are even starting to incorporate their digital property and online presence into their wills.

There has also been recent press coverage of people who post their own imminent deaths and their intention to cause a death on Facebook. A mother apologised on her wall before drowning her three children in a river, a daughter pre-empts her own death, a father declares his intention to murder his daughter. In these instances Facebook is used as confession booth. Brubaker names such use of social networks “technospirituality,” also referring to the use of social networks to call a religious community to prayer for example.

Personally, I find it strange to still have my deceased friend on my Facebook friends list, but some other friends and especially his son seem to find it comforting. Then so be it.

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