As it does with so many things, the Internet manages to help and hinder those who wish to mourn a loved one. While they can supply those who mourn with a widespread support network and a thousand different ways to honor the dead, it can also give them the opportunity to exploit death for egotistical gains or be exploited by those who might have their own designs. Whether you’re a celebrity or a nobody, your death could confront all the gifts and curses the Internet provides the living.
This week, Facebook unveiled its “Legacy Contact” feature, through which every user can name another user who can manage their profile as a memorial page—a digital tombstone. Upon Facebook’s confirmation of your demise, your Legacy Contact can download an archive of photos, change the profile and header photos, and even post under your new “Remembering” page.
Whether you’re a celebrity or a nobody, your death could confront all the gifts and curses the Internet provides the living.
After you’ve named the executor of your Facebook estate, however, you’ve now enabled all that is wrong with Facebook and online socialization as a whole. All the miscommunication, petty arguments, and neediness that Facebook breeds is now brought to the act of mourning.
Most of these “In Memoriam” pages will be respectful and unique places of remembrance and sincere expressions of grief. In fact, the Legacy Contact is Facebook’s solution to a problem it’s struggled with, never more so than when its “Year In Review” app placed pictures of dead family members on celebratory slideshows. Facebook is inherently a mechanistic tool that handles inherently un-mechanistic material, be it happy moments or sad. By allowing us to pick a human we know and trust to care for our memory, Facebook as a software is trying to overcome its robotic lack of emotional discernment.
And many who have lost someone close to them have found themselves wresting control away from social networks in order to use that space to share their grief with the people closest to them. Perhaps most famously this was done by Melissa Rivers, daughter of the late comedian Joan Rivers. Through simple password-guessing, Rivers hacked into her mother’s Twitter account and sent a Thanksgiving wish and an old photo. Since then, she’s turned the feed into a fond commemoration of her mother’s life.
But such pages also stand to become arenas for one-upmanship or crass disrespect for the dead. Another celebrity offspring, Zelda Williams, removed herself from social media after facing down the worst of the worst in response to her father’s death last summer. After posting a collection of photographs of her father and herself, Williams was criticized for exploiting his death. She later stated she would be keeping all photos of her father private. “They would’ve wound up on the news or blogs then, and they certainly would now,” Williams wrote. “That’s not what I want for our memories together.”
Of course, we do know some will readily exploit the deaths of others for the purposes of likes, retweets, and other digital affirmations of our being. As Time‘s Lia Zneimer wrote in her fantastic 2014 essay on mourning through social media, “Mourning online allows us to stake our claim on the effect of a tragedy—even one that doesn’t have a direct impact on us.” Prefacing that “there is no ‘right’ way to mourn.” Zneimer correctly worries we trivialize—or even abuse—the dead when we share “our feelings about meaningful things like death if we discuss them on the same platform as complaints about our cable company.”
More so, however, these memorial pages give us the opportunity to enjoy the same level of artifice Facebook provides us while alive. In a way, it makes perfect sense: To paraphrase Modest Mouse, you wasted a life on Facebook, why wouldn’t you waste a death on Facebook? How we use Facebook today—to stalk, argue, glorify, and celebrate—is presumably how we’ll use it from the grave, some odd surrogate crafting the memory of ourselves as carefully as we crafted our profile to hide every angle and curve—unless, of course, we want to be seen that way.
You wasted a life on Facebook, why wouldn’t you waste a death on Facebook?
The reason Facebook manages to make its users more narcissistic and more depressed simultaneously is it breeds inauthenticity. It provides an opportunity like no other in history to paint a falsified image of oneself. However, that delusional parade route of our own self-aggrandizement passes by everybody else’s finely crafted image. Knowing the truth—that our lives are simply far more boring in reality than they appear on Facebook—means we actively assume our lives are less eventful than others.
This paradox fills us with self-loathing because, no matter how many exciting events, moments, thoughts, or jokes we post on Facebook, we must confront the deluge created by our group of friends and feel inferior by comparison. But it’s all lies. It’s all self-crafted projections of us at our most likable. And we intrinsically know that of ourselves but assume it could never be true of others.
Aside from leaving Facebook, death should free you from this cycle of creating your own lies while believing everyone else’s. Indeed, death is the ultimate liberator, for both the departed and the left behind. One of the freeing things about death for the living is it enables us to see the dead in a light they never wanted to be seen. They can’t deflect criticism or take the time to fill their responses with snide justification or hunt for empathy. They are stuck as they are, in an eternal L’esprit de l’escalier. Whether we lionize them or villainize them is entirely up to the beholder. In a way, that could make the dead the most honest people on Facebook.
Dying could make the dead the most honest people on Facebook.
By arming them with a chance to defend themselves, however, Facebook is extending its absurd factory of social projection into our afterlives. Your Legacy Contact now must behave like the curator of a presidential library in your honor, emboldened with all of the same decision making as someone weighing whether George H. W. Bush’s legacy should include that time he vomited on the Prime Minister of Japan.
Which is far more power than we should arm people with when mourning. In college, after I got my first off-campus apartment, I would regularly cut through a graveyard on my walk to campus. It gave me a lot of time to wonder about these plain stone blocks with barely a first name. All that a tombstone gives to you is a name and a lifespan, purposefully unadorned with quirky affectations and ornaments of that person’s life.
One tombstone, however, was a large, black marble affair, with a solar-powered blue light and deep engravings in the front. An image of the deceased, a car salesman, was professionally carved into the marble. Far be it from me to choose how people mourn, but it seemed garish and tacky, especially when placed in a row of plain granite blocks without much to say for themselves. It seemed to shout a little too loud, “Here lies a man who truly lived! More than you other suckers!”
That is the future of mourning Facebook has presented us with. While there exists no proper norm for mourning—nor should there—these pages offer the opportunity for abuse, opening them up to be used as false tokens for exploitative pity. Each will scream for your attention next to your cousin’s new Scion and your niece’s school dance, just as filled with false illustrations of how each lives (or lived). Instead of living forever on the Internet, maybe all any of us can ask for is what everyone tombstone promises: to rest in peace—far, far away from Facebook.