Digital ghosts

This is a re-worked and updated 2016 post from my other blog.

In November 2014 I got on Facebook and there were all these messages posted to a friend’s profile saying things like: “Steve, why??” “What happened?”  “i miss you my best friend.”  I thought “WTF?”, with a sinking feeling.  Many more messages followed, referring to him in the past tense, and finally it hit me that he had taken his own life.  For weeks afterward, people posted messages on there as more and more people found out about it.

Coming to terms with his death and that horrible sense of loss was one thing — but this business of someone’s Facebook profile staying active after their death, and people posting messages to it (and each other), was something new for me.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  Is it weird?  Is it helpful to those he left behind?  I eventually came to realize that it’s actually kind of comforting to be able to say something “to” him this way, as a form of closure.  Or maybe not closure in the traditional sense, because people still occasionally post to it.  “Steve, I found this picture of us I never shared with you.”  “Happy 40th!  Missing you every day!”  It’s kinda sweet and I know his family appreciates it, but it still felt odd.

A couple of years later, another friend of mine, John, died…and everything happened the same exact way.  I checked Facebook before work, began reading all these strange messages to him, and realized he’d died the previous evening.  Renal failure.  It hit me really hard because we were pretty close despite living far apart — so I took the day off because I was completely useless with anything else.  I posted a bunch of photos of him/us to his Facebook page and said goodbye in my own way, and all day I read all the other stuff posted by his other grieving friends.  It was about all I could do since I wasn’t able to actually visit in person, but being able to do it was surprisingly cathartic.

My dad passed away a year after John, and I still visit his Facebook pages now and then. In 2019 it was my mom’s turn, and though she wasn’t on Facebook, we have a family photo group on there where people can share pictures and stories. Then 2020 came, and with it a massive wave of newly-memorialized social media accounts for people to engage with, thanks to COVID.

10-15 years ago I would have felt that leaving messages on a dead relative’s or friend’s social media account was a little morbid, but these days it seems like the obvious thing to do (sometimes it’s the only thing you can do), and now I get it. For whatever reason, it feels okay.

There’s a strange wrinkle to this, though.  A few days after John was gone, a message from him appeared on Facebook.  Apparently his mom had taken control of his account and was letting people know about memorial services, etc.  I figured that was probably a good idea, since she wasn’t normally on Facebook and people could give their condolences that way.  But soon it began to feel a little weird, because she continued to post and “like” stuff, even sent me a couple of private messages about this or that.  I eventually had to mute the account because it was just too painful having his name and photo keep popping up as if he were still around.  I know she means well, but…I just can’t.

A fantastic article about this exact dilemma appeared on Wired recently, it’s well worth a read:

Social Media Algorithms Are Controlling How I Grieve

For now, Facebook still thinks my mom is alive, and as long as my dad continues animating her account, the company’s algorithms will continue operating under this misconception. I should bug my dad about this, I sometimes think. (Especially recently, when my mom was tagged in spam for Ray-Ban.) But he’s a grieving widow and I don’t want to destroy whatever comfort logging in is giving him. Facebook means more to boomers, anyway, I sometimes think.

…there’s a part of me that wants to be triggered by my mom’s eternal presence, including those blasphemous birthday reminders. The philosopher Patrick Stokes has written about how we use Facebook to talk to the dead as if they’re still alive, mourning in a way that’s neither temporally nor spatially bound. No wonder online memorials are nearly as old as the modern internet.

Anyway, this stuff leads me to ask the obvious question:  what are people going to read/say when I’m gone?  Am I happy with the online story I’ve unwittingly left behind?  Or does it really matter once you’ve popped your clogs?

I’ve thought about this while going back and reading a bunch of my older stuff, and I think I’m OK with it.  There are posts I totally forgot about that crack me up when I find them, and there are things that make me cringe a bit.  Especially on Facebook when I went through my Asshole Atheist period in my early 40’s (I’ve mellowed a lot since then).  But it was all honestly written, so I can at least say I was being authentic…even if I was sometimes being an authentic twat. 🤦🏻‍♂️

Considering how much of our lives we tend to put online, it feels like a sort of passive immortality.  The big players in the social media game are booming, and all this stuff we’re sharing with the world will be available for anyone to look at for decades to come (assuming you or your family don’t delete it!).  It’s not a complete picture of who you are/were, because people tend to project a particular image of themselves on social media, but it’s something. It’s kinda like that sci-fi trope of people transferring their consciousness and life experiences onto data cubes or whatever, but in a clunky, disorganized way.  (If you want to see an extreme take on this idea, check out the Black Mirror episode called “Be Right Back.”)

I also think people should be able to easily opt out of being part of this future “existence”, though that’s nearly impossible at this point.  The Right to be Forgotten movement attempts to give people some choice in the matter, but apparently the process of making Google remove you from certain search results (the data stays, it’s just not linked to your name) involves an absurd amount of hoops to jump through.  I’m sure they’re hoping people will get frustrated and just give up.

Anyway, I’ve come to find some amusement in the possibility of someone in the year 2116 somehow running across that massive compilation of blonde jokes I put together with my buddy Troy in the mid 90’s, and being thoroughly confused.  Or maybe that shitty photo you took with your Motorola Razr phone and uploaded to Friendster in 2004 will someday pop up in an online collection of “primitive social intercommunication technologies.”  

The most likely outcome is that everyone’s past online life will be part of a far-future virtual museum exhibit about the Great Societal Breakdown.

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