Life and death in the time of Facebook

Life and death in the time of Facebook

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Technologies often develop faster than our ability to ponder upon their ramifications. As we have embraced social media as an omnipresent part of our reality, it is worth taking a look at how it has shaped the way we live through the life cycle.

Consider the baby of one of my friends, whose debut to the world was a picture of a pregnancy test showing two lines—a positive result—captioned by the proud would-be father: “Thank you, Lord!” Months later, the still-unnamed baby appeared as my friend’s profile picture—even though the baby was yet unborn, and the image comes from his ultrasound result. Finally, moments after the baby’s actual birth, his picture has been shared, his name announced, much to the delight of the newly-minted parents’ family and friends around the world.

The next generations will have their entire lives documented in a way ours never were. Just as importantly, their entire lives will be shared—and, in many cases, available to the public—long before they understand the meaning of “privacy settings.” What will these mean for them when they grow up? For one, they will have the ability to look back at parts of their childhood that even they have forgotten—or were too young to remember. Perhaps they will grow up with more prudence, knowing that whatever they say or do can go “viral.” More likely, social media will be taken for granted and seen as the normal way of connecting with family and friends.

Illness will eventually come and these, too, will be chronicled in social media. On the lighter side, there would be people posting about their health problems in a bid to solicit answers from their doctor-friends. They might even upload an image of their laboratory results in a bid to get interpretations. More seriously, I have seen people announcing their cancer as a status message. Perhaps this has a therapeutic, or at least liberating, effect that can help people move to accepting their condition, and rally others for moral support.

Fast forward to the opposite end of the life cycle: Death, too, is being shaped by social media. In some of the hospitals where I trained and worked as a doctor, we have seen patients who, in the final moments of their lives, sought to make one final “status message” on Facebook, in an attempt to bid the world adieu.

And, of course, when people die, their Facebook profile pages become a virtual book of condolences, where people can express their sympathies to the bereaved families and friends. It is also through people’s Facebook pages that sometimes their very funeral schedules are announced—a practical way of communicating these details to the friends of the departed. At times, it can draw mixed emotions, as when the dead person’s various social networks have conflicting ways of coping with the death. For example, others, in a bid to lighten up the mood, would post jokes and funny anecdotes about the person that would strike some as distasteful or untimely. A more common way in which people express their grief is to make their own profile picture that of their deceased family member or friend—or one with him/her. Some writers have called for a new “etiquette” in dealing with death on Facebook, and we will see more talk toward this direction in the future.

Beyond their death, people “live on” in Facebook; we are reminded of their birthdays, which become opportunities to commemorate their lives. And because many of their “life events” have been dutifully chronicled in those pages, they become virtual autobiographies that help their families and friends cope with bereavement, and relive their loved ones’ moments in life.

On the other hand, many persons carry their passwords to the grave. Facebook has a service that “memorializes” an account, but doesn’t allow others access to it. Perhaps it has to come up with a way to transfer the custody of dead people’s accounts to their next of kin, via advance directives. Else, it will be something that individuals will have to think of as part of their will: Should I pass on the passwords of my social media accounts, my e-mails?

Death is something many of us find awkward to talk about, but if we look back far enough in our own culture, we do see more openness which allowed people to discuss their own deaths and manage their affairs beforehand. We need more ethnographic accounts of death and dying in our contemporary time, even as we need more scholarship on the way social media—and, more broadly, the Internet—affect health-seeking behaviors, and dealing with illness, death and dying.

* * *

“Technological progress,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” It is arguable whether social media has brought us backward, for it has certainly revolutionized the way we relate to each other. But in the final analysis, perhaps Facebook is there to enable what we have been doing all along: Celebrating and mourning, yearning for connections, and striving to find our place in the world.

Yet as social media shapes the very cycle of life, and allows us to see it in its glories, pains, beginnings and ends from a different vantage point, the awareness of our finitude may perhaps bring us to a better appreciation—of our ability to share with the world the small epiphanies and heartaches of our lives; of our freedom to express our thoughts and feelings; and of our (taken-for-granted) opportunity to connect with family and friends: May they always be “online.”

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Technologies often develop faster than our ability to ponder upon their ramifications. As we have embraced social media as an omnipresent part of our reality, it is worth taking a look at how it has shaped the way we live through the life cycle.

Consider the baby of one of my Facebook friends, whose debut to the world was a picture of a pregnancy test showing two lines—a positive result—captioned by the proud would-be father: “Thank you, Lord!” Months later, the still-unnamed baby appeared as my friend’s profile picture—even though the baby was yet unborn, and the image comes from his ultrasound result. Finally, moments after the baby’s actual birth, his picture has been shared, his name announced, much to the delight of the newly-minted parents’ family and friends around the world.

The next generations will have their entire lives documented in a way ours never were. Just as importantly, their entire lives will be shared—and, in many cases, available to the public—long before they understand the meaning of “privacy settings.” What will these mean for them when they grow up? For one, they will have the ability to look back at parts of their childhood that even they have forgotten—or were too young to remember. Perhaps they will grow up with more prudence, knowing that whatever they say or do can go “viral.” More likely, social media will be taken for granted and seen as the normal way of connecting with family and friends.

Illness will eventually come and these, too, will be chronicled in social media. On the lighter side, there would be people posting about their health problems in a bid to solicit answers from their doctor-friends. They might even upload an image of their laboratory results in a bid to get interpretations. More seriously, I have seen people announcing their cancer as a status message. Perhaps this has a therapeutic, or at least liberating, effect that can help people move to accepting their condition, and rally others for moral support.

Fast forward to the opposite end of the life cycle: Death, too, is being shaped by social media. In some of the hospitals where I trained and worked as a doctor, we have seen patients who, in the final moments of their lives, sought to make one final “status message” on Facebook, in an attempt to bid the world adieu.

And, of course, when people die, their Facebook profile pages become a virtual book of condolences, where people can express their sympathies to the bereaved families and friends. It is also through people’s Facebook pages that sometimes their very funeral schedules are announced—a practical way of communicating these details to the friends of the departed. At times, it can draw mixed emotions, as when the dead person’s various social networks have conflicting ways of coping with the death. For example, others, in a bid to lighten up the mood, would post jokes and funny anecdotes about the person that would strike some as distasteful or untimely. A more common way in which people express their grief is to make their own profile picture that of their deceased family member or friend—or one with him/her. Some writers have called for a new “etiquette” in dealing with death on Facebook, and we will see more talk toward this direction in the future.

Beyond their death, people “live on” in Facebook; we are reminded of their birthdays, which become opportunities to commemorate their lives. And because many of their “life events” have been dutifully chronicled in those pages, they become virtual autobiographies that help their families and friends cope with bereavement, and relive their loved ones’ moments in life.

On the other hand, many persons carry their passwords to the grave. Facebook has a service that “memorializes” an account, but doesn’t allow others access to it. Perhaps it has to come up with a way to transfer the custody of dead people’s accounts to their next of kin, via advance directives. Else, it will be something that individuals will have to think of as part of their will: Should I pass on the passwords of my social media accounts, my e-mails?

Death is something many of us find awkward to talk about, but if we look back far enough in our own culture, we do see more openness which allowed people to discuss their own deaths and manage their affairs beforehand. We need more ethnographic accounts of death and dying in our contemporary time, even as we need more scholarship on the way social media—and, more broadly, the Internet—affect health-seeking behaviors, and dealing with illness, death and dying.

* * *

“Technological progress,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” It is arguable whether social media has brought us backward, for it has certainly revolutionized the way we relate to each other. But in the final analysis, perhaps Facebook is there to enable what we have been doing all along: Celebrating and mourning, yearning for connections, and striving to find our place in the world.

Yet as social media shapes the very cycle of life, and allows us to see it in its glories, pains, beginnings and ends from a different vantage point, the awareness of our finitude may perhaps bring us to a better appreciation—of our ability to share with the world the small epiphanies and heartaches of our lives; of our freedom to express our thoughts and feelings; and of our (taken-for-granted) opportunity to connect with family and friends: May they always be “online.”

Dr. Gideon Lasco is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and a mountaineer. He is working on his PhD in medical anthropology in Amsterdam.

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