Life and Death on Social Media

Life and Death on Social Media

I joined Facebook in 2008. In the thirteen years since, I’ve “friended” a few hundred people, many of them people I know from social circles, but also extended family and old schoolmates that I haven’t seen in years or decades. In some cases reuniting with old friends has caused a new friendship to blossom, and in others it’s simply been a chance to catch up on what has happened in our lives since we graduated from school, so long ago.

In addition, in the thirteen years since I joined Facebook, some of the people in my friends list have died. Almost certainly, you have experienced, as I posted recently, learning about a friend’s death online. When a Facebook user dies, their profile will still be there online. Facebook, in fact, has developed a protocol for memorializing accounts. Because of the nature of the platform and its long term success, this protocol, like death itself, became an inevitability.

At this point in time, about 1% of my Facebook friends are deceased. I don’t bring this up to be macabre, but to point out that with the pervasiveness of digital life, we are witnesses online to every stage of the lives of the people to whom we are connected in our social networks, and that includes the final stage.

With respect to the very youngest generation, we begin to learn about them starting at the earliest life stage. Today’s children are online even before birth, in the form of ultrasound images posted by their expectant mothers. In childhood, before they have their own social media accounts, they appear in their parents’ profiles. Traditions have developed like the annual back to school snapshot, or the family Halloween group picture.

Today’s childhood generation is the first generation to exist fully on the Internet. It will encompass their lives from cradle to grave, like some device in a Black Mirror episode. For older generations, even early wave Millennials, there is some period of their lives before everyone was online. People my age and older experienced the rise of personal computing and then the Internet only as adults.

For early wave Gen Xers such as myself, joining social media has been kind of an enfolding into our youth, like getting into a hot tub time machine that takes us back to our connections and experiences from the 1980s. It’s as though the Internet, in its mission to envelop the world, is reaching into the past and pulling the pre-Internet timeline into the metaverse of digital memory. I’ve posted already about how, for me (and probably for other Xers as well) this has been an opportunity for reflection on our past and reevaluation of our future.

The Internet gives us an amazing power to connect with others and share our personal experience. It’s only to be expected that this would reach all the way to the end of life. I’ve seen posts from the terminally ill, announcing their remaining life expectancy, and I’ve found this off-putting. But upon serious consideration, I must conclude that if we are willing to engage with our social media connections as a daily custom, we should engage with them even as their days come to an end. Death, after all, is an experience we all share.

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