Monday, May 18, 2009

What Happens to our Facebook Page When We Die?

The knowledge of what happens after we die is truly one of life’s greatest mysteries. The afterlife is almost as confounding to society as to how exactly they get the caramel inside a caramilk bar. No one quite knows what happens after we buy the farm… Some stereotypical allusions of death envision humanity walking towards the proverbial yellow light. Various religions have various conceptions of both a heaven or a hell depending on what type of person you’ve been. Catholic priests guilt their flock with images of purgatory, which rhymes with masturbatory so who’s to really know what those cwazy Catholics are getting up to in their afterlife. The Hindu faith talks about reincarnation. Jews are waiting for the messiah to come – so when he gets his lazy ass here we all get to rise up and flock to Jerusalem. It'll be like a mass Birthright trip, only not paid for by the Bronfman family. And yes Jews did inspire the original Dawn of the Dead and we also do control the media. Anyway the Messiah has yet to come, probably because as we speak he or she is being guilted by his mother, “Lawrence, why don’t you go to law school first. This Messiah business can wait. Can’t you be like your older brother Chaim? He’s a partner at Goodman’s…”

Jono doesn’t really know, nor does he particularly care about the afterlife; I’m pretty bad-ass like that – I live for the moment, BITCHES. Anyway what I’m more concerned about is, what happens to my Facebook page when I die?

I mean this seriously. Are people going to write on my wall, “I miss you”? Is someone going to log into my account and change my status: “Jonathan is now dead”? I don’t really care either way – probably because I’ll be dead, but for the 800 or so acquaintances whom habitually visit my profile… my death is going to be a bit awkward isn’t it? I guess you could always make a friend list: deceased, but still… does anyone use friend lists anyways – it’s a bit complicated.

Now in some ways and I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone – death and Facebook have already awkwardly met. (Death dated Facebook’s best friend. It ended badly.) I can, however, think of several tragic accidents, where people around my age have died, which have instigated sudden Facebook memorial groups and other such public outpourings of grief. After all Facebook is the only way my generation seems to be able to communicate effectively with each other. In these instances these ad-hoc responses are representative of the tragic and spontaneous nature of said tragedies. It’s fairly unexpected and extremely sad for anyone in there twenties to die so it makes perfect sense that we’re societally unprepared to de-activate someone’s Facebook account. In the business sense – demand hasn’t really hit the mass market, as macabre as that may or may not be.

Realistically the vast majority of Facebook users are in there twenties, thirties and forties. The vast majority of us are seemingly healthy, productive members of society (although probably 10% less productive then when we didn’t have Facebook). But what happens when this demographic bump of users starts dying off? But how will Facebook learn to deal with death once the mass-market actually starts necessitating it?

Perhaps Facebook will just become a natural part of the grieving process. For example a “Facebook Friend” of mine, let’s call her Anastasia, recently lost their parent. I only know of this because she changed their status to reflect the funeral details: "Anastasia’s mother died. Please come visit me at the Bedford Park Memorial Chapel for a Viewing. Mon-Fri 12:00pm – 9:00pm."

Now as most my friends will know - I tend to live a fairly public life, chances are if you’ve seen me shuffling along Bloor Street in the past week you generally know what’s going on in my life, but even I found Anastasia’s status a bit, well… much. There is no part of me that would want anything related to my death to be on Facebook. In fact my friend Karen and I have a pact that should anything happen to either of us we’re to immediately de-active the other one’s Facebook account. But then again was Anastasia’s response any different then buying an advertisement in the Globe and Mail announcing a birth or death? As our print industry faces its own morbidity, is Facebook the new town hall bulletin board? Perhaps stagnant profile pages are just going to become twenty first century memorial; wall writing is akin to signing a guest book. If so… well this still strikes me as… a bit weird. Although maybe by the time I’m rolling about Baycrest, or as they’ll call it when I’m there: Gaycrest, I’ll decide to update my page and become a fan of Metamucil, new interests: sponge baths, as I prepare my profile for the great beyond.

I realize I’m being a bit of a drama queen in my analysis, but such hyperboles do raise an important issue, as we create ever growing online footprints, we blog, we flickr, etc… how do we bury our cyber cadavers?

When you think of it our generation has grown up almost in tandem with email. Hotmail, launched in 1996 as one of the first free webmail services, coincided with the social awakening of me and my peers… and we’ve become addicted to email ever since. As Generation Y we are the Blackberry, Facebook & Twitter kids. If its not online it doesn’t exist. I have something like 12000 emails in my gmail account; accumulated only since October 2004. What the fuck happens to all of those emails when I die? At the rate I’m going… approximately 2500/3000 emails a year, lets say I live to 80 – that’s almost 200,000 emails sitting errantly in cyber space. If I were famous Peter Newman would probably go through them after my death so he could write my biography: Portrait of a Canadian Gay-triot. Even if I do become famous, Peter Newman will be long dead and no one is going to be that interested in the thousands of angry emails I’ve written to Jordan about various injustices. I’ll be leaving a huge, boring, bursting email account squatting on cyberspace. Now – in some ways boring minutiae of life isn’t a newfound phenomenon. When I was cleaning out my grandparent’s house this past winter– I found a bunch of old love letters. It was beautiful – but also a very private moment. My grandmother had kept stalks of cards, letters, and notes from my grandfather stashed away in a cookie tin. I kept a couple of them – and shredded the rest. Who really wants to voyeur through a 65 year-old love story? However, unlike our email accounts, my Pop’s letters were destroyable. While I was able to delete my grandfather’s cutesy poems (this from a 6 foot something rugby player) when we die – all of those embarrassing: I miss you emails that you’ve drunkenly written to your ex boyfriend, will be sitting there, forever squatting in cyberspace.

So what happens to our Facebook page when we die? Well… depending on your religion – you can expect your gmail account to be reincarnated into a twitter page, or perhaps your Facebook profile will become frozen in time, or if you’re lucky your Flickr page will rise up when the messiah comes and will march itself towards Jerusalem. Or not. However, just as the internet has found a way to commodify most other things – business may in fact be the answer. After all, death is the world’s second oldest business. Most likely I’ll see you at