N.B. This is the latest addition in my “old man yells at crowd” theme. I am a cantankerous old soul.
Social media exploded as an international and cross-generational phenomenon in the late-aughts. We began to see more and more people embrace these platforms, being offered as public-private diaries, with many choosing to air online their grievances and exultations for their circles of acquaintances. Even now, I can’t help but be embarrassed frequently by the posts I thought were appropriate for the medium during my high school years; I frequently make use of Facebook’s “Delete Your Post” option on my youthful indiscretions. All that to say, in our naïveté we assumed our digital footprints would wash away with the tide of time, only to find after a decade that, no, all those silly posts still exist.
One additional aspect of social media’s dawn is less playful. (Note: whatever I say in the text to come has already been said better and before in this Boston Magazine piece, which appeared while I ruminated on this topic.) As social media’s reach expanded over time, and as this expansion coincided with my own formative, transitional years from high school through college, the experience of stumbling across informal death notices, i.e., twenty or thirty of my friends posting fond remembrances of the dearly departed, became more frequent. I don’t know whether there’s a statistical uptick in deaths of those who are between the ages of 15 – 24; in fact, data suggest the opposite. My perception was that deaths became an unwelcome intrusion into the normal rhythm of life. Perhaps the perceived increase is the result of our college years being the time in which we experienced our greatest increase in the size of our social circle. Another factor is surely that the statistical irregularity of a teenager’s or young adult’s death invites us to see ourselves in the uncommon occurrence.
In any event, unexpectedly, social media became not merely one’s corner of personal expression but also the place where others publicly mourn your death, inasmuch as a social media page is a public space. Whether in lieu of attending a funeral or reaching out to the bereaved, or perhaps accompanying those interpersonal acts, posting digital eulogies grew more prevalent over time–the result being that we were often seemingly the last aware of an acquaintance’s (or, worse, a friend’s) death.
I find social media an intensely harmful aspect of modern life; I’m not sure I could be more down on the phenomenon. Social media tends to reinforce our disposition to be incurvatus in se–turned in toward our self. We are naturally obsessed with ourselves, and social media exacerbates this problem by rewarding vanity, even vanity in the form of performative eulogies. How does this pertain to the grieving process?
Our capacity to grieve (and for grief!) is limited within and around us by our digital landscape. Our ability to grieve well depends in part on the support system surrounding us, but the degree to which we have replaced our embodied connections with digital networks is the degree to which we have hampered our ability to grieve properly–that is, in a manner commensurate with our natural capacities and needs. Public-private diaries, and the rapidity with which the algorithm dispenses our posts, work against the slow, difficult, tremulous process of grief. I am three years removed and still processing the loss of my nephews, for example, though I have no expectation of “getting over” their deaths and have been reticent to grieve online.
Regardless, in addition to smothering our process for grief, the digital age places triggers or mechanisms for grief at our fingertips, in some cases catching us unaware, as when we forget the anniversary of somebody’s death and Facebook gently reminds us of the death notice from a previous year. Whereas earlier generations may have photographs or memorabilia of the departed about, that at least would have to be physically hunted for, while the deaths of our friends and family were commemorated online, and in at least a few instances their online profiles are still available, a few clicks away. They are perpetually memorialized in the recollection of their closest friends and family, who either recycle the deceased’s self-presentation (i.e., the pictures they themselves used online) or reuse their own digital pictures of the deceased from happier times. In either case, as grievers process through a medium that explicitly works against grief, the grieved-for can be caricatured into their own self-presentation: the most readily available images of the deceased are the images they themselves chose for the public, which are (for most of us) chosen because they appeal to our vanity, and this modeled persona, our being-for-others, becomes our postmortem instantiation in the world. Whether it is simply so that we become our remembrance after death, I’m uncertain, but the particular way in which the self-manufactured digital self becomes or comes to replace others’ perceptions of self is especially problematic, inasmuch as incurvatus and being-for-others becomes coextensive.
The comparative perpetual youth of our deceased friends and family, as they appear to us “younger than they ought,” disallows our grief, insofar as we fail to grapple with distention and decay. I’m reminded of Agee’s A Death in the Family, a semi-autobiographical account of a boy’s grappling with his father’s death. The father’s family remarks throughout the work how full of vigor he was, but it’s the presentation of the corpse at the family home that finally silences the groaning. The reality of the corpse undoes the idealistic portrait of their minds.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to continue bemoaning this phenomenon. We would do well to divorce our selves, our digital selves, and our self-conceptions; that polygamy serves nobody when the end has come. What could be done? Short of utterly obliterating the digital space–a wholly unrealistic expectation? I would suggest we entirely remove the deceased from “public spaces” and construct a kind of digital graveyard, as morbid as it sounds. These already exist, but more often than not they’re behind paywalls. With social media’s ever-increasing reach into our lives, however, we run the risk of obliterating somebody’s existence, at least as far as their acquaintances are concerned, because their existence is constituted by their digital presence.
With respect to the grief process, it would undoubtedly be healthier for most of us to refuse to grieve online. Is there a healthy way to grieve online? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe there is.
 It’s a contentious position, but I’m partial to the idea that technology–particularly social media–harms our ability to process our emotions appropriately, whether through rewarding vices or through curtailing the process required to process well.