31 January, 2014

Facebook Death Protocol

Marc died yesterday. It was quite a shock - I don't think he was even 60. I knew he had some serious health issues a few years back, but didn't quite know the extent of them. We weren't close friends - I'd see him a handful of times a year at our synagogue and have a bit of a chat. He was always congenial - something of a big friendly giant. The e-mails went around the community mailing lists announcing his passing, with the funeral and minyan details.

Then, this morning, something strange happened. In my Facebook feed, a FacebookFriend™ of mine posted a condolence message on Marc's page. I was a bit taken aback, so I went to his page to discover a handful of messages posted - some of them farewell messages, some directed to his family, and other nice things about him.


I sat there trying to compose a message to post, but it felt so awkward. Who was I writing to? Why was I writing? Is this something for all his FacebookFriend™s to see - a conspicuous condolence? Sometimes, when attending a funeral, I step forward to the bier and say goodbye. That is an intimate, personal moment, and not something to be shared even with those nearby.

This raises several questions. What have social media tools like Facebook done to social norms? Have they caused us to share far more than use used to? It would seem that way. Will deal with some of that another time; the issue here is about death and social media.

When someone dies, their "life" online doesn't automatically die with them. Sure, they can't reply to messages, but all postings made while alive remain there, and others can still communicate with them, even if they can't reply. Is it not enough that Facebook have us living our previously private lives in public - does the internet now have us talking to the dead? Or are we just seeking to make ourselves (and others) feel better by making public declarations about those who can no longer speak for themselves?

Of course, death is a recession-proof business, so this issue has spawned a sub-industry of services to help manage your online life once you go permanently offline. The Digital Beyond is a great think-tank for discussion about these issues. From digital asset planning to Google's inactive account policies, there's a whole world of things you never knew you needed to know, but now that you do know, have you sh*t-scared. The legal world is starting to catch up with the issues as well, but as usual lags behind. If you thought writing (and maintaining) a will was difficult, that's nothing compared to preparing for the digital afterlife.

What do you want to happen to your Facebook page, your tweets, your Instagram pictures and your blogs when you die? Should they all slowly fade away like your body will when it's in the ground? Or perhaps they should spontaneously combust, if cremation is your preferred option? Perhaps you want an executor (you certainly won't want to entrust this to your children) to maintain a digital shrine after you are gone? These days, it's might be just as important as deciding what will happen to your dependants and your money.

2 comments:

Ymr said...

Thanks for these eloquent words when may of us are a little muted

Ilana Leeds said...

B'H
In light of what I know now, I think we should build a Facebook etiquette booklet for births, deaths and marriages and what ever other rites of passage that most people want to publicize to friends, family and relatives, as well as enemies. You do want people you know, who don't like you to know how well or how badly you are faring at times.
This is my contribution to the FB Etiquette Manual for ......(I do not want to say rude words).
Death - Do not speak ill of the deceased anywhere. It is hard enough for families to deal with loss without having to deal with cyber hatred and even if, in your opinion, he or she was the worst person ever, someone out there loved and still loves him or her. Say nothing but Baruch Dayan Emet or BDE, if you cannot say positive things.
Births - Can't we just announce the time, place, gender and weight of the child and state Mum, Dad and babe are healthy, B'H. Do we need to know on FB that waters of mother have broken in the past five minutes?? For G-D's sake, respect yourself and the child. And NO we do not need to know the cm dilation etc. We are meant to be your friends, not your gynecologist or your I am not secretive but private on some levels. That is healthy. Friends do not have to know every thing that happens - every sneeze or hiccup of the day.
David Werdiger your post is very apt and maybe you should publish FB Etiquette 101 and it could be a best seller.