Grave New World

Sorry, but today we’re going to discuss Death and Social Media. Look, I wish we weren’t, but these repulsive concepts are finally colliding and I can’t help but rubberneck. 

THREE KEY EVENTS over the past few months made me uncomfortably aware that a lot of us humans will now die as we lived — online. And seeing as how life is seemingly quite short, or as scientists say, “slipping away every second,” it’s best we just jump right in, hand-in-hand, and see where the rabbit holes take us.

1. Funeral Selfies.

As many angry people know, “selfie” was deemed Word of the Year in 2013 by the Oxford Dictionary. Apparently, the sacred crown that is ‘Oxford Word of the Year’ was soiled irreversibly by this decision, even if it was just the cold result of online usage analytics. But a selfie is a selfie — it’s not nothing.  I learned this tautology from a riveting BuzzFeed list titled ‘The 23 Most Important Selfies of 2013.’ I really recommend it, especially #15, which is a dude taking a selfie in front of his teacher while she’s in labor.

The future is in good hands

When it comes to selfies, no category was more maligned than The Funeral Selfie, and with good reason—the pictures show an ugly new stage of the Internet’s growth. But not everything evolution throws our way is aesthetically pleasing. New forms of media and viral communication are constantly invented and adopted, we just never consider what will happen when Death gets his frozen, greedy hands on that shit.

The most definitive collection available is the Tumblr blog called “Selfies at Funerals.” The blog was created by Jason Feifer, a guy from Brooklyn (of course!), who got the idea in October, when he saw some picture online of a kid snapping a selfie at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. Naturally, he started a blog called “Selfies At Serious Places,” which got some traffic, but not as much as the spin-off, “Selfies At Funerals.”  It’s worth noting, for the sake of rolling your eyes, that Feifer’s latest cultural monstrosity is “Selfies With Homeless People.” Get this man a podcast!

[In his defense, Feifer just capitalized on something that was already happening. As he explains it: “One of my favorite things about social media is seeing so many people, without knowledge of each other, do or say the exact same thing.” Look, he’s talking The Great Big Collective Unconscious, and Carl and I dig that. But he’s also 100% A-Hole if he considers his blog, ‘Selfies at Funerals,’ passive journalism.]

Here’s a highlight reel.

tumblr_mvewmcBcRx1smbgw2o2_r1_500tumblr_mvewjzv6SC1smbgw2o2_r1_500funeral selfie1tumblr_mvey07Tuf41smbgw2o2_r1_500

Is it just me, or has social media like, I don’t know, made us narcissistic or something?

Nah, that can’t be right. Let’s see what the Internet had to say about it. Check out the titles on these articles, all written this past December when the idea of funeral selfies splashed into the mainstream. I’ve chosen the most sensationalistic, naturally.

  • “Selfies at funerals? Yes, people actually do that.”  (CNBC)
  • “Funeral Selfies are the Latest Evidence Apocalypse Can’t Come Soon Enough” (Huff Post)
  • “Selfies at funerals are a trend now. Are we losing our humanity?” (Bustle)
  • “Grave New World” (The Computer Newspaper)

Despite the uproar, there were defenders who came forward, including psychologists and grief counselors. There was even a funeral director who said something undeniably apt on television about it: “Since social media is how the younger generation relates with the world, it will likely be how the younger generation relates with death.”

[This seems like a good time to reference The Social NetworkJustin Timberlake, as a coked-up Sean Parker rants, “We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet!”  Then the cops burst in and he’s arrested because it’s a phenomenal movie.]

funeraobamThen, there’s Obama. Back in December, the Danish prime minister took a selfie (for personal use, probably not Instagram) with President Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service  — an incident that brought millions of new eyes to the “Selfies At Funerals” blog and inspired all of those loud headlines above about the modern collapse of decency.  The only two things worth mentioning here is that (a) the photographer eventually stepped forward in defense of Obama after seeing the narrative get out of control.  He clarified the picture was taken during a point in the memorial service where music and conversation were ubiquitous, and the First Lady had been jocular with those diplomats just minutes before.  And (b) Jason Feifer shut down his blog “Selfies at Funerals” shortly after because he felt like the meme had peaked.

So here is the crux of the problem: funeral selfies ask that we be fair to something we don’t understand. Taking a picture of oneself at, or simply dressed for, a funeral, is a decision impossible for me to relate to, but I don’t want to categorically dismiss those that have as decorum terrorists and/or human garbage. Everyone processes death differently, and some not at all. Some prefer the privacy of their own prison mind; some may choose to externalize what they’re feeling onto the Internet. Some people can’t bear the sight of an open casket; some need to see a corpse before they can get closure.

[Let me save you a Google: there are pretty much no ‘open casket selfies’ out there. I already looked, and perversely, was disappointed by the lack of results — I guess I just wanted to see what true moxie looks like.]

As important as social rules and norms are for communication and efficiency, they are far from absolute. In fact, we know them to be quite relative, from culture to culture, sometimes from neighborhood to neighborhood. And when somebody dies, the floodgates open. We get reminded of the brevity of life and reflect on our own insignificance, digging for meaning. That’s when the whole system breaks down and the realities of existence trump the needs of society as a whole.

We still congregate for wakes and funerals because it makes sense to do so — we’re the most intelligent ‘things that die’ in the history of things that die. But these gatherings are, essentially, suggestions on what to maybe feel about mortality. Actual grief, and actual dread, have the creative license to run free, far past the fences we’ve erected.

2. The Facebook Dead

‘Funeral selfies’ is just a trend occurring on the margins — it’s easy to look at from afar, knowing full well you’ll never truly need to confront it.  But the idea that you and all of your Facebook Friends will soon enough perish, right in front of everyone’s scrolling eyes, is a fact that requires no binoculars. You’re nose-to-nose with it.

It is estimated that there are 30 million profiles on Facebook that belong to individuals who have crossed over to the other side.

The reason this is in the news right now is an announcement made last week that Facebook will no longer restrict access to users’ profiles after those users pass away. facebookcoffinFor the past several years, Facebook has offered, discreetly on a FAQ page, people the chance to “memorialize” a deceased user’s page. Memorialization entails that Facebook will leave the user on the website, but make said profile private, meaning only people that were Facebook Friends with the user when they were alive can see it moving forward. People can still interact with their dead Facebook Friend if they choose, posting whatever kind or sad sentiments they may have on the wall of the deceased. Tagging is no longer available, which is reasonable, but what if someone wants to tag their dead Facebook Friend in a meaningful picture they just took? Anyone who’s said “X was with us today in spirit” is familiar with this coping strategy.

Frankly, all of this makes sense if you’re Facebook — I mean, what else, honestly, can we expect them to do, given that they have 1 billion users worldwide and did not invent heart attacks or car accidents — their only responsibility here is to follow the same tactful code we all do when someone we don’t really know dies: express condolences and offer help. They could just (and do, if asked) delete the profile forever, but that’s as romantic as zipping up a body bag. It’s not the way we generally handle death in the actual world, so why behave any differently in the virtual one.  Facebook has enough acreage to fit a cemetery, therefore it follows they should provide our online presence a clean, blue plot.

skeletonstuffWhat CHANGED this week is this specifically this: memorialized user’s profile will no longer become ‘private’ upon death.  Now, people that were not Facebook Friends with the deceased in life, can still search for that user, read their profile, check out their pictures, whatever would have been allowed while he/she was living.  The company had very little choice, given that they were getting complaints from parents, who having tragically outlived their kids, could not see what wonderful memories and sympathies people were sharing on their child’s wall if they weren’t ever Facebook Friends.

What’s interesting about this recent announcement is not the change in privacy policy itself.  I am not sure what line in etiquette opening up profiles really even crosses, given that the boundaries of social media have yet to be drawn. What startled me is the way they framed it:  “This [change] will allow people to see memorialized profiles in a manner consistent with the deceased person’s expectations of privacy. We are respecting the choices made in life.”

[High horse not pictured]

Then they added:  “….there will be more changes in the next few months as we continue to think how best to help people decide how they want to be remembered and what they want to leave behind for loved ones.”

So …………. what the fuck, am I going to have draw up a Facebook Will soon?  Is that seriously an e-mail I’m going to get in 2015? Some estate planning form letter that says,

Dear Justin,
Death is a ghastly debt we all must pay. As troubling as that fate may seem to you, now is not the time to lose tears over spilled milk. We need to talk Facebook Will.  Is it your wish that we, Facebook, upon your untimely exit from this world, bequeath all of your Likes over the years to your closest-living-acquaintance-from-high-school?
And what of your profile picture?  What mobile upload would you like to be your one visual calling card for eternity?  We recommend choosing something where you look happy, but not intoxicated.
Lastly, would you like us to enroll you in our Ghost Post program?  We basically just write ‘Happy Birthday from beyond the grave!’ every year on your Friends’ walls. 
Sucks about existing,
Zuck      🙁

If you think the above is embellished for the purposes of morbid humor, I implore you to visit  If I Die. Net, which already offers a third-party application for Facebook that sends ‘trustees’ a pre-recorded Goodbye video after you kick the ‘ol bucket. Watch the 1 minute pitch video below.

I don’t know about you, but cartoon clouds and British voiceover ALWAYS put me at ease. Spoiler Alert, my Goodbye video is going to be just me waving to the camera without saying a word for the whole minute, with ending credits that just say “Avenge my death at your leisure.”

No matter what further actions Facebook takes regarding the sudden undertaker role they have in our lives, they are right to be prepared. 30 million-and-counting have died in their arms, and it probably scares the shit out of them as much as it does us; fear of death’s in our genes.

But should I die tomorrow, my online remains will need to be addressed. I have an account with Gmail just like I do with Mastercard. I only hope that when my body stops working — you know, like a battery you can’t re-charge, and everything I know and love is gone — my final thoughts are not regretful ones, and furthermore have nothing to do with privacy settings on goddamn Facebook.

3. The Deathbed Live-Tweet

What Facebook does, for the dead and grieving, is perfectly civil. It’s one of the first newspapers I read every morning, so it’s natural they’d have an obituary section, and I reserve the right to avoid that if I find it depressing. Twitter, on the other hand, is less regulated. It provides a solicited entrance into people’s brains, and that access always yields messy results.

Last week, Laurie Kilmartin, a writer on Conan, became famous for live-tweeting the last days of her 83-year-old father’s death. It wasn’t something she ever announced and it was not done for publicity, despite the fact that Kilmartin ended up quadrupling her Twitter following by the end of it. She just kept writing, and I suspect it is because she needed to.

[Surrounding our Dad with love and sarcasm.]

[First 2 days of Dad’s hospice, I wouldn’t leave the room w/o telling him “I love you.” Now we’re into day 5, I just say “We’re cool, right?”]

[Mom just told Dad, “I love you, hon” while stepping on and cutting off his oxygen supply. This is their marriage in a nutshell.]

As you can gather, the tweets are honest, morbid, sarcastic, sweet, anything within the breadth of human emotion. In lesser hands, the whole enterprise could have dovetailed and the Internet would have let her know that no one was laughing. But she’s a professional comedy writer, and it showed.

[Dad can’t talk, but if he could, I think he’d say, “You and your sister really messed up tonight’s bed to chair transfer.”]

[Hospice said signs my Dad’s body is shutting down: loss of appetite, loss of thirst and him looking me in the eye and calling me “handsome.”]

She continued tweeting 20-40 times a day, and social media took notice when Patton Oswalt called attention to her work, re-tweeting several to his 1.6M followers.

[Guys, @anylaurie16 is Live Tweeting taking care of her rapidly-dying-from-terminal-cancer dad and it is epic.]

At Oswalt’s urging, the whole project went viral and soon news outlets had to decide what to do with it; there are no pre-established norms for this sort of thing, so really, we all had to decide.  And unpredictably, given that it’s the Internet, the public supported her. Scouring as I have, most coverage has been extremely laudatory, calling it ‘brave,’ and ‘healthy,’ and in true 2014 hyperbole, ‘worthy of a Pulitzer.’

Undoubtedly, there are some people out there on the Internet who disapproved, and maybe you’re one of them, and frankly, maybe I am. It would have been easy to reprimand Kilmartin because (a) we prefer the subject of death to be kept beneath the floorboards, and (b) live-tweeting someone’s final waking moments, or rather the instinct to do so, is a challenge of empathy. But lo, behold: we didn’t freak out. It was as if we all saw what was happening, scanned the room to see how everyone else was reacting, and then someone broke the tension with “I mean, yeah, a lot of people turn to humor to cope with the death of a loved one.”  Then we all nodded, because we’re all such experts on the subject of bereavement propriety; all we know about death, and the many famous stages of grief that follow, is that most behaviors get a pass, save for a Funeral Selfie every now and then.

[Requisite Lovitz Anecdote (RLA):  I recently saw Mike Myers get asked who the funniest person he knows is, to which he replied ‘Jon Lovitz.’  He talked about going to Phil Hartman’s funeral, when he and scores of other comedians went out for a drink post-service.  Some of the funniest people we’ve ever heard of were there, and yet everyone was silent, shaking their heads at the nature of Hartman’s death. Someone muttered, “I can’t believe Phil’s dead. He was so young and he got shot in the face.” Lovitz affably interjected, “oh come on, you’re making it sound worse than it is.”  A beat, and then the whole crowd erupted in laughter. Lovitz out.]

jon lovitz

Back to Kilmartin. Her taking gallows humor out of the gallows was strange to witness, and then suddenly brilliant. She proved that Twitter, and by extension all social media, is not a trifling, odious technology; it can also be an anthropological document.  The humans of right now are urgently releasing their thoughts upon the world, in bulk, and sometimes we get lucky and hit upon something vital to the human condition. Basically we have the success rate of a broken clock.

It’s what comes after Kilmartin that I can’t shake. If someone’s death, as experienced by someone looking on, is not too macabre for broadcast, it seems like the next mutation of online sharing will be the act of dying itself. The envelope has got to get pushed. Someone will tweet while on life support or while kidnapped. Someone will post their suicide note as a Facebook status. Someone will get fatally stabbed and have the time to post the assailant’s name on whatever app was last up on their smartphone. It’s horrible, but not insane, to imagine social media will even be utilized by madmen to spread urgent fear, sharing pics of their victims or live-tweeting a murder.

Frankly, there is no point in speculating. Death is a guarantee, and no medium will ever muffle that message.

In the meantime, since we’re all still here and breathing, did you hear about that kid last week who fucked a Hot Pocket?