e-ulogies: Social Networking for the Dead

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Behavior, Death and the Afterlife, Ethics, Faith, Religion, Technology
Tags: , , , , ,

As social networking becomes more prevalent — at times seeming to be an even more efficient method of communication than e-mail — unspoken rules for etiquette and expected behaviors have developed, similar to any tradition that permeates a society.  Many of us now utilize e-mail in the workplace, and as such may have had to adapt our usual style of communication in this medium to sound more “appropriate” and “proper.”  Not surprisingly, social networking has followed a similar path as businesses, politicians, nonprofit organizations, churches, and so on have begun using Facebook and Twitter.  But still interpersonal communications, depending on the “friend” you are conversing with, have a varying degree of formality…you might communicate in “txt-speak” with people you frequently text, but employ more of a written-out style with your aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and if you are responsible for maintaining a company profile (like a “Page” on Facebook), you may have to use the highest level of formal communication, as well as police and censor undesirable comments and opinions of anyone who has access to the profile (i.e. EVERYONE if you do business with the general public!).

Having recently celebrated my 32nd birthday, the inevitable onslaught of celebratory comments ensued, numbering around 80 total over about a 36-hour period.  I have never received education or training in Facebook Manners, but common sense and past experience instructed me to ensure I went through and clicked “Like” on each comment, also replying to some of the more thoughtful ones.  I mentioned this unwritten etiquette dictating my behavior to my wife (whose birthday was a week prior to mine), and she agreed that she felt compelled to do likewise for all her well-wishers (“but I only got 60, no fair!”).  It’s just what you do, unless you’re an asshole troll or someone who has been morally opposed to the “Like” button since its implementation.

In a similar vein, our need to express certain emotions has spilled out onto social networking sites, and here I would like to point out the phenomenon of online eulogizing and grieving.  I should note that I have not personally experienced this, but have observed it with many friends who had loved ones pass away recently.  I knew none of the deceased I will comment on, and only observed those that were public profiles and public comments (in other words, I did no hacking or infiltration of private profiles, and in fact didn’t even take screenshots of those that were public, simply to protect my friends and their families; besides, screenshots aren’t necessarily pertinent to this observation, since I’m sure most of you have seen or engaged in this behavior by now).  Also, I was completely unaware of this article on the subject until I typed this blog and saw it in the “Related Articles” section, and it is far better researched than my simple blog, so please click through and read if this post piques your interest in the phenomenon.

John Smith changed his mortality status.

Over the past several months, tragedies have befallen many of my Facebook friends, mainly consisting of young people losing their lives entirely too soon.  Many of my friends are mutual friends, and thus I was able to view the grieving and condolences by a number of people for only a few deaths (I think I remember 3 or 4 in total, but again I took no notes of names).  Often the deceased’s profile was linked to these comments — as happens when you start typing one of your friend’s names — and I naturally clicked through to witness this peculiarity.  Well, I think it’s peculiar, or at least I did once I really started thinking about it.

In looking over the comments on the Walls of these unfortunate folks, the obvious lacking feature was that of the deceased “Liking” all of the comments that the living typically “Like” (such as the aforementioned birthday wishes or other congratulatory remarks).  In some cases, I noticed people posting memories weeks to a month after the death, things like, “I was just at X and remembered when you used to go there with me,” or “I heard Y on the radio and thought of you,” etc.  I started wondering about how people would latch onto a site like Facebook, but only for dead people…Gravebook, if you will, and for lack of a better name at the moment.  Maybe even Facebook would get on board with this idea and help to transfer the profiles over into this new realm of the online afterlife (in fact, I even envisioned the profiles looking similar to the typical FB profile, but “grayed out” — in a fashion similar to that used by the best disc golf course website with “extinct” courses).  I actually think that this would provide a thoughtful and accepted outlet for grieving, especially in our globally connected generation; an option for loved ones separated by great distances to do the equivalent of planting flowers at a grave or making a pencil rubbing of the epitaph.

I am certainly not looking forward to the day when one of my 500+ friends dies…in fact, many of my “friends” are online contacts made via common factors like disc golf and atheism, and friend counts that high tend to fluctuate (someone deletes their account or “unfriends” you for something you posted), so I can’t say with absolute certainty that someone on my friend list hasn’t died.  I just know that the 90% of the people I’m close to, including old friends I haven’t seen since childhood and still care about, are on Facebook, and death is inescapable.  A grim observation, but pertinent here.  As far as posting on their Wall(s), I will not participate in this behavior for the same reason that I don’t visit graves or engage in other prolonged public grieving…since I don’t believe in the existence of souls or an afterlife, my view is that they won’t be reading or appreciating my thoughtful Tweets, so why bother?  I prefer to remember, perhaps make a toast with friends at times when we recall them, look at old photographs and smile, that kind of sentimental stuff.  But to each his own.

Oh, and I’ll expect credit if anyone successfully uses “Gravebook.”

  1. Kaitlin Pike says:

    I’ve seen the same thing happen. One of my friends from college died of cancer, and to this day people will post things saying, “I wish you were here to see this.” The birthday remembrances have significantly decreased though.

    I’m of the opinion that the works “In Real Life” are rapidly losing their meaning, and that online memorials will be as accepted as tombstones soon. Our digital lives are simply becoming apart of our “real” life.

  2. Mindy says:

    I sometimes think the messages on the wall could be of great comfort to the living relatives left behind to mourn, even if the deceased person will never know of it.

    In past times, Facebook used to encourage me to “reconnect” with my dead Grandma. That was always disturbing. But, it was not nearly as disturbing and spooky as the day my mother logged into her account to use it for a Farmville game. (Farmville from heaven? Guess Gma was right! Time to go to church…) I thought perhaps I was the only atheist/ agnostic Facebooker who had entire thoughts about such things. Good to know I was not. Great post!

    • jhgonzo says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Not too long ago I thought about updating this post, as one of my old high-school classmates died suddenly and unexpectedly…I again witnessed the Wall-comment phenomenon, and indeed I tried participating myself, just an indirect way of offering my condolences to a family I didn’t really personally know; I clicked in the Comment box and started typing, “I am saddened to hear,” but then realized that it just didn’t feel right to me and deleted what I’d typed and just looked through his Wall, noticing all the other thoughtful comments, memories, and photos. I really do think it is a terrific new medium through which people can publicly grieve, although I’d love to hear the thoughts of someone who thinks it somehow cheapens the traditional wake/funeral/memorial process. If this meme continues to proliferate, I honestly feel that it could grow into a worldwide tradition, where cultures that all have their own unique treatment of death find themselves more and more accepting of memorializing the deceased via social networking. Of course, the more well-known the person is, the more susceptible their profile is to troll-esque slander (to name one of many possible problems with the practice).

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