Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R).
(photo credit: reuters)
A friend of a friend on Facebook has posted: “Travis Carter along with 18 other
firefighters were killed yesterday fighting the Yarnell Hill fire. Please
pray for all of their families and especially please pray for Travis’ son and
Now I understand why so many of my friends from the Orme School, a
small boarding school in Arizona where I went to high school, are changing their
profile photos to a Prescott Granite Mountain Hot Shots crew logo that says
“last alarm 6/30/2013.” Our friend Carter has passed away. But the sad truth is
that I don’t remember Travis that well, so it is good that another friend has
posted old photos of him in his football uniform, number 45. The online
community at Orme is posting rememberances and sharing thoughts and prayers with
This is the new world; it isn’t the first Facebook obituary
I’ve read this year. Jeff Plevan, a fraternity brother from Phi Kappa Psi,
passed away earlier this year. The first notice was “RIP Jeff Plevan.” How could
that be? He was just in Israel and then he was gone. I’d turned down a lunch
with him – actually, blown him off. What am I supposed to contribute on
Facebook? Everyone is writing “we will miss you Jeff,” so am I supposed to think
up something more original? What is the mourning etiquette for social media? In
many ways the Facebook mourning phenomenon is perfect for the world we live in.
Many of us are born in one place, go to high school in another place, university
in a third location and end up working elsewhere. With all the communities
joined along the way, without Facebook we would never know people who we once
spent our time with had died.
In the old days when people for the most
part remained in the same place, phone calls, letters or community meetings
would have sufficed to announce a death. In Israel it is still relatively common
to see notices pasted up in communities announcing a death. But for the modern
person on the move, Facebook can play an essential role in maintaining links to
all the varied people someone has known over the years. However, there is
something macabre in the fact that the dead person’s Facebook page remains open
after their death. Plevan’s is still open. In fact it is being used to raise
money for a No Bad Days Jeff Plevan Scholarship Fund, a great cause and a good
way to keep Jeff’s memory alive.
In the old days one might have held a
memorial for someone long after their death. But these days the memorial takes
place within 24 hours. One is flooded with notices, photos, stories. Does it
make it more personal? In some ways it creates a competition for everyone to
join in with condolences.
Do the condolences actually console the family?
Is it easier just to post a short note like “we are so sorry for your loss” than
to call the person? Does the fear of calling someone indicate a belief that
avoiding the issue of loss through the distance of the Internet is equivalent to
expressing real person-to-person sorrow? Some of us share stories on Facebook,
short little rememberances, and these bring together an online
For instance in recalling Travis a number of people remember
his having been an aggressive member of the Orme Warriors.
One writes: “I
had the great privilege of playing football in high school with this guy. He was
the left defensive end and I was the right defensive end. I used to love it
because teams refused to run to his side, so I got to see lots of action.” But
many of us seem to just write that short note to loved ones, “sorry for your
loss.” The sense of community is only so deep. One can see the community, in
this case all the people who changed their profile pictures. But we don’t grieve
together, we grieve separately.
Nor would there be a way to grieve
together because everyone is so far apart.
So this is the best that can
Does Facebook or social media cheapen death? Is it appropriate?
This revolution, of changing how we relate to death and mourning, is similar to
that which took place with the telephone. It changes the way we relate to
each-other in times of crises. It allows for the creation of a instant online
community and the sharing of sorrow. In this case people can express solidarity
by changing their profile pictures. It changes the way knowledge is transmitted
and the ability to interface with it. In the past we had to rely on the
telephone and the chance someone felt the need to inform you. If no one called
how would you find out an old friend you had not seen in a decade had passed
away? With social media the social community doesn’t disappear even if we move
on from it. In some ways the closeness is illusional. Some people who appear to
grieve are simply participating in saying the right thing. Because of the
superficiality of the medium of social media I become aware of death without
feeling a proper distance and initmacy with it. Do we mourn properly when we
simply change our status or change a profile picture. It is too easy to simply
type a few words. In the old days we might have written whole letters. Now our
participation is cursory at best.
Instantly seeing photos is intimate,
but social media dilutes the connection allowing us to keep connections to a
vast quantity of people.
HOW MANY friends’ deaths will we learn about on
the internet? If Facebook remains a social media behemoth for another few
decades, the answer would seem to be more and more. But does that also make
Facebook something one begins to associate with tragedy? Now when one sees
“sorry for your loss,” does it not strike fear into our hearts? Who is gone now?
Is it Joseph, who is serving in the Marines? Is it Ali who is in Pakistan? Some
of them seem to do dangerous things all the time; they work as reporters or
performers or pilots. But are those the ones we are afraid for, or is it the
ordinary people struck down while crossing roads? Social media doesn’t always
communicate someone’s status sufficiently. Let’s say a friend is in prison. His
profile page doesn’t say, “I’m sorry, I am in prison, when I get out I will
respond.” So his friends leave him notes, “hey bro, where you at?” They share
photos on his wall.
And his friends in the know don’t post “Jim is in
jail,” for example.
And that makes us wonder about the people who miss
the death notices. A year goes by and someone’s page is still up and we leave
the person a message.
Who will write us back and tell us, “I’m sorry, but
your friend has died”? Nothing can prepare any of us for the fact that we sit
down and read the news and see the tragedy, like “19 Arizona firefighters
killed” and there on the iPhone is the notice: “Oh, so sorry to hear the
shocking news, sending prayers.”
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