Generations have always been defined by technology. We divide eras by technical feat- Industrialization. Landing on the moon. The Cold War (dude, that was DEFINITELY a technical feat.) MTV.
Now we’re in a brave new world, the Facebook generation, and we give birth to infants who will never know of time before the iPad. The social web changes the mundane experiences of our lives…. the way we put together birthday parties, the way we stay in touch with long-distance friends, the way we find jobs… and get fired from them. (RE: photo sharing. Constant vigilance is the only way.) But it also defines the more profound experiences of our lives. Falling in love, falling out of love, finishing school, getting married (and divorced), having children. The lasting mark of the social web isn’t felt in transitory devices and applications that fight for momentary ascendency in the everlasting battle of the valley, but rather in how they shape core human experiences- and death is foremost among them.
Talkin Bout My Generation
****I’m part of a new generation that won’t know death in absentia of the social graph. I never knew anyone who died before I had a profile. My first loss was my grandmother. I had a cell phone, three kinds of instant messenger and a Friendster page, pink and purple striped hair, and more piercings than my parents knew about (sorry Mom, I know you google me, love you). I probably texted a few friends and updated my Friendster feed. Still, the social web was young, peripheral to the more intimate rituals of family grieving.
After that was high school and college- the age of MySpace and Facebook. Meth swept the Midwest and I lost friends to drugs in so many different ways. In the worst ways, I lost them in the most final ways. As time passed and I moved to Chicago, then to Prague, then to Pittsburgh, now to San Francisco, my social network became increasingly distributed, connecting me in several- sentence blurbs on activity streams to people I hadn’t talked to in months or years, people I would never again share dinner with, or even cities. In the Facebook era we travel through life amassing gigantic nets of correspondence that are simultaneously ephemeral and historical. We build digital homes for ourselves decked with pictures of our friends, memories from the past, notes passed back and forth in HTML hallways. People stay with us long after physical and temporal separation would recommend otherwise.
Somewhere along the way, that social web became the fastest, the farthest- reaching way to share when we’d lost someone. It let us touch, influence, organize an infinitely larger web of connections than could be incited by an obituary in the newspaper or the list of people you would think to call. The kid who went to karate camp in 8th grade with your sister? No one would ever think to drop him a line or invite him to the funeral. Hell, he lives across the country now and hasn’t seen her in 6 years. But they’re friends on Facebook. He’s going to part of it now.
Losing Friends… for real.
****It marked a fundamental change in my relationship with death when I found out a classmate had passed in a car accident, and I found out on a MySpace page. In many ways we weren’t so intimate that I should have expected anything else. We’d always promised to hang out, we texted back and forth a few times and once she SMSed me from winter break. She told her parents I look like an ice princess. We should hang out when we get back.
Now it all comes down to that one day when everyone goes to her profile to talk to her, and to each other, and I go to wish I’d made more effort to do that vegan lunch we’d always said we’d do. In those moments that carry into today I remember how vibrant and alive she was, how I envied her natural ease and confidence, how slim and beautiful she was, how young.
She stays with me because she streams across my social graph even now, years later. I would like to say I would remember her so often even without these apparitions. But I’d probably be lying to myself.
It continues. Kids I went to elementary school with. Their photos on walls, with pages of comments: We love you, we miss you. We’re so sorry. Heroin ain’t the same without you. Nothing is the same without you. Wish you were here. Remember that day when we skipped school and the sun was out and we listened to that CD? And god, if I could have that day back. I would tell you how I really felt. I would warn you about what was going to happen.
Profiles become the digital equivalent of flower-strewn gravesites or those crosses they put up on the highway where everyone leaves notes. Every year on those awful anniversaries my feed fills up with their faces. It becomes part of our ritual of death.
These things are complicated, and neither good nor bad, but only so.
There are few things so antithetical to the finality, the severity of it than learning through a 140-character update that on more average days contains details of meals and movies, miscellany and mundanity. Yet without these tools so many of us would be left in the dark or isolated from those that share our loss, no matter how far removed. Sure it is a special kind of pain to reload those Facebook profiles, hoping that somehow they would change their status from that one last time. But at the same time it is hard to argue with anything that brings them closer to my life even after they are gone.