Death and Life on Facebook

A friend of mine died yesterday. I knew it was coming. He had already beaten a different kind of cancer once, but this one, in a different part of his body, was fast-growing, virulent, and untreatable. I learned of his diagnosis, earlier this year, the old-fashioned way – someone told me about it, in person. This man – Steve – was closest to my uncle, but as someone who had worked first for, and then with, my uncle since I was in my early twenties, I definitely considered him a friend. When news of his death came yesterday, again it was the old-fashioned way – my mother called me to tell me. When I hung up the phone my first urge was to post something about it on Facebook, but as my fingers hovered over the mouse to click to the page, I stopped. I thought. I started to cry. And I didn’t write the post.

What stopped me from sharing this life event with my social media circle? My first thought was that it wasn’t appropriate. Steve and I did not share many friends on FB, but we shared a few, and I didn’t think this was the way they should find out if they didn’t already know. My second thought was that it’s not the way I would want to find out, either. I tried to assess my initial desire to post about this loss right away and what I hoped to gain from it, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this issue is more complicated than I thought – and more complicated than I want it to be.

This isn’t just about death or other bad news; it’s about sharing our lives in general. As those of you who read my blog already know, I have an uneasy relationship with social media. Obviously I use it, but I am ambivalent about it – sometimes deeply. There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing news about our lives, and the positive thing about sharing the news of my friend’s death was that I would get comforting words from other friends in return. That’s a good thing… right? Of course it is. But can it also be a bad thing? Is our urge to share on social media right away, especially when it comes to deeply personal news, something we should always do? Of course not. But when do we know? This is the tricky part, because I think this line is drawn in a different place for every person. It makes the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – uncertain. And because social media is ubiquitous, and because the posting habits of others are out of our control, sometimes things we wouldn’t share about ourselves get shared anyway.

When I thought more about Steve’s role in my life I realized that if it weren’t for Facebook I probably wouldn’t have had much interaction with him at all over the last several years. I would see him in person from time to time in social situations, but we didn’t have a one-on-one relationship. So when I saw and friended him on FB, it was an opportunity to reconnect with somebody I had always enjoyed seeing. Steve was deeply, brilliantly sarcastic, with an acid wit and a tongue to match. He was quite liberal in many of his politics, and once we became FB friends we would trade private messages with links to political cartoons or articles that we would laugh over together. Sometimes he would engage in sparring matches with some of my friends in the comment sections of some of my political postings, making sharp points couched in jokes and eye-rolling mock disdain. I always loved to read what he had to say. I will miss that very much. But I have to ask myself: what would I have to miss if it weren’t for the fact that we reconnected on Facebook? In other words, if it weren’t for FB, I probably would not have talked to Steve for years, and I would not have had an online relationship to miss. That would have been a shame. But I have to ask myself: if people didn’t have social media, would they have more incentive to maintain the relationships that are important in their lives? Would we reach out to people more frequently in person if we didn’t see them online?

I don’t know the answer to that question. The reality is that I have reconnected with people on FB that I most likely never would have seen or talked to again if it weren’t for social media. Looking back on my life pre-FB, how often did I feel the urge to find some of the people I am connected to now? I have to be honest and say that I probably didn’t think of them at all. However, once this venue became available to us we had a way to look for people, and we could give in to the novelty and the curiosity to find out what people from our past might be up to now. But again, the hard, honest truth: my life would not be any worse if I had never reconnected with some of these people; and I don’t think it’s necessarily better because I have. This is not meant to be a slight; to me, it’s simply reality. The people who are the most important to me are the ones I know, and have always known, I am going to see again. They are the ones I will contact personally if I have something really important to share. They are the ones I can count on if I need them when something bad happens. I don’t want to discount the value of online interactions in general – like most people, I enjoy the likes, the shares, and the comments on what I post. But I think it has become too easy to rely on electronic feedback to provide us with the squirt of dopamine that reassures our brains that we have been noticed and validated. My fear is that we will think this is enough, and we will not nourish the relationships we have with people in the real world.

This post probably seems hypocritical in some respects, because in deciding not to post on Facebook about the death of my friend I felt inspired to write this post talking about the death of my friend, which I will shortly be posting, via Twitter, on Facebook. But this isn’t about Steve. It’s about making sure that I keep my online interactions in proper perspective. I value the interactions I am able to have because of FB but I don’t, in the big scheme of things, think I will be missing anything important if I decide to back away. If I want to have actual relationships with people, not just digital interactions, then I think I will ultimately have to back away.

In your memory, Mr. Marchetti. I enjoyed having you as a friend in the real world and the digital one, and I will miss you.

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