Death and Facebook

In mid-February, while doing my morning rounds on Facebook, the name of a recently deceased acquaintance popped up on my “your friend has a birthday today” list. This acquaintance was not someone I was close to, but over the years, I’d had more than a few professional dealings with him and I always found him to be friendly, pleasant, and courteous.

That last sentence in the above paragraph hardly qualifies as a heartfelt eulogy. Is that an awful thing to say about a relatively young person who died unexpectedly? No, I don’t think it is an awful thing to say, if you and I were in the same room, talking. I don’t think it would be awkward or awful at all to share these feelings in a personal conversation. But somehow, in digital pixel-form, it does feel much more awkward.

In mid-February, I clicked on his still-live Facebook account to see what was happening on his wall.

Love it, hate it, have your brains reshaped by it, social media has certainly changed our daily lives in ways large and small. I tend not to spend much of my day fretting over these changes. I flatter myself by thinking that I’m so savvy therefore I know what I’m getting into. I know the deal struck, and the consequences. But I have to admit, one month later, the death of this acquaintance, or more specificially, seeing his Facebook wall continues to unnerve me.

This goes well beyond my own personal annoyance unease with the near-anymous RIP messages dedicated to the celebrity/actor/musician/writer/artist du jour one finds on news feeds and twitter accounts on a daily or hourly basis. Not that I haven’t participated in the social media version of  the two-second eulogy. And rationally, I understand the cathartic value of joining or starting a cultural discussion/remembrance of Person X by posting to social media, and the value of publicly proclaiming this person who lived was important to me and here’s a little of the why. I do think my unease is associated not with the message but with the messenger: the staid permanence of the digital sentence, which is generally without nuance and most certainly lacking the nonverbal communication cues associated with live conversations, plus the arbitrary constraint of that digital RIP message to 140 or 420 characters.  Maybe it’s the non-permenance of the digital gesture as well. Your blip on the screen disappears so quickly it’s as though it was never there in the first place.

I’m not proud of myself for digitally rubber necking the deceased acquaintance’s Facebook wall. I can’t explain why I went to his wall when I don’t spent time on the walls of other deceased people to whom I was quite close. Perhaps it’s because I knew what I was going to find, but I still wanted to see it.

There were touching missing-you-on-your-birthday wishes and other sad messages from people who were close to him, and from others, who, like me, were only acquaintances yet moved to write something on his wall that day.  There were also happy birthday messages from people who clearly did not know that he passed away months ago. Invariably these messages were written by writers of various levels of career.

There was one message from AuthorX. I really can’t stand AuthorX and I think AuthorX is a self-absorbed tool bag. AuthorX’s wall message was: “I hope this and every day’s a happy one for you.” In the instant after I read this, all my petty assumptions and suspicions about AuthorX were validated. AuthorX, who is marketing and self-promotion crazed, was only on Facebook to accumulate potential sales. AuthorX’s smarmy, sell-at-all costs persona summed up not in a simple happy birthday wish, but in that puke-worthy florid sentence meant to show that AuthorX’s birthday wish goes beyond your average Facebook friend, and that AuthorX truly cares about you. Only, you know, AuthorX doesn’t realize that you are dead. And he’ll likely never realize you’re dead.

I know that’s not fair of me. I know that it’s an honest mistake, one that two friends of mine made on the same wall. They too innocently yet ignorantly wished the dead acquaintance happy birthday. I know it’s a mistake that I could easily make.

With few exceptions, partaking in social media is a necessary evil for most writers. Henry Holt as a part of their marketing plan for my second novel strongly suggested that I get on Twitter. My needing a better marketing strategy aside, the mad rush for writers to find some sort of online presence in this chaotic publishing climate is often a desperate one. Like most writers I know with a Facebook account, we have a friend’s list mainly comprised of people who aren’t our real friends. Certainly comprised by people we’ve never met in the flesh. Most of us accept friend requests with the idea that our network is growing wider, stronger, that it’ll all result, somehow, magically, in more sales and better deals. The writer’s online presence is something that so many of us fret over. So many of us have editors and publicists tell us we need to worry about our presence; that precious garden which now needs to be obsessively tilled and cultivated.

I’ll freely admit that most days I do enjoy the glancing interactions, the amorphous sense of community I have with other writers and readers, and the speedy exchange of information on social media. Sometimes, though, I grow weary of tilling that garden.

I went back to the acquaintance’s Facebook wall today. All the messages are still there. They confuse me more than ever.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Death and Facebook

  1. An unusual and well written post about a subject we’ve all encountered and a mistake we’ve all seen (and maybe made!) Thanks for posting it.

  2. thelittlesleep

    Thanks, Richard!

  3. Dave Z.

    Paul, well-written and some what unsettling post. I think there’s the seed for a short story here. I also suspect the social networking we’ve all been pushed into is a monumental waste of time. But being mostly an anti-social prick, I’m probably just looking for any justification to close my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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