Facebooking the Dead, RIP Trolling, and Mourning in the Online Age

I spent six hours at the emergency pet clinic yesterday. Besides being the horrible experience that it always is — the boxes of tissues, crates of miserably crying cats, howls from the back room, people sobbing openly to the always-chilly-mannered receptionists and then being handed a giant bill for euthanasia — being in the waiting room felt sort of old-fashioned. Everybody was talking to each other: Oh, what’s that, a foxtail in the ear? Is he Siamese? I hope she’ll be okay, she’s a good dog, look at her sit in your lap like that. Nobody really reached for their phones, unless it was to check to see how many hours they’d been waiting there. They were busy talking to each other or being miserable while absentmindedly patting their labradoodles’ heads.

Though it’s not totally uncommon to see a tweet or a Facebook status update about a recently deceased dog, cat, or bunny, we tend to agonize about these things in a more private way than we do when a person dies — maybe because people who aren’t pet owners don’t understand that particular kind of sadness; maybe because there’s an ingrained sense of perspective when it comes to pets, the knowledge that it could always be worse if the patient were a human. Very few people have real relationships with Jimmy the cat from down the block, other than the household that feeds him and worries when he doesn’t return to the doorstep at twilight. Jimmy the cat has no social network, no mother or father, no ex-girlfriends. Nobody will ever say, “I really wish I could call Jimmy up right now.” Nobody ever called Jimmy, except to tell him that his ocean whitefish feast was getting cold (or warm, whatever’s less palatable for an aspic mold of fish guts and bones). The emergency pet clinic experience might resemble what it was like to take the covered wagon down to Ol’ Doc Gooberbyes’ shack in a pre-industrial era, during which time nobody had any friends because they were all working way too hard planting peas and making mud huts to live in just to stay alive (I assume. I was born five years after this period). It’s a private and intimate emotional shitstorm, not anything like being a mortal human among other mortal humans in the age of the If I Die app, RIP Trolling, and the immortal virtual tattoo. Our modern way of grieving isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it’s certainly pretty weird. The spirit world is no longer something we imagine or access through Whoopi Goldberg. It’s visible.

In contrast to all of the obviously tacky and exploitative stuff that accompanies celebrity deaths (which have a longer history anyway, thanks to tabloids), publicly mourning the death of a friend or a family member in the virtual world usually seems to come from a sincere, vulnerable, well-meaning place. Keeping in touch and expanding our social networks also means that the death of someone you barely knew can inspire a mysteriously modern gut-punch of loss when you discover he or she has died — news much more promptly delivered, sent sailing up to the top of your Facebook timeline every time you refresh the page: but just last month you snooped through the albums of her trip to Spain, considered the scone she ate for breakfast, lurked over her bridesmaid photos even though you only took one college class together! You can see the ripple of despair on her wall, and even months later you see how her departure has affected the people closest to her (as well as, you think cynically, a handful of attention-seeking opportunists who keep tagging pictures of her in a slippery, lingerie-like top at a disco in Mallorca). There has to be some comfort gained from being able to revisit something that once so closely reflected the identity of the person you miss, a page that they formerly controlled and constructed as a mirror of themselves; there’s also a voyeuristic satisfaction in viewing the archives of what has definitively become an entire life. You troll for meaning. A network of mourners forms, breezing in and out of the always-open church doors to flip through the photos or add a comment to the sad chain that forms every year on his or her birthday. Are there really 30 million Facebook accounts that belong to dead people? Personally, I think Facebook leaves way too chaotic a legacy. It used to be so simple: instructions for a tearful woman to sing “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” by Gladys Knight or for someone to solemnly wrap you up in a juicy blunt and smoke your soul up to heaven. Now you have to worry that after you die there will be no one to untag you, not that you can care. You haunt by proxy. Your inbox pings with messages that say “I miss you” as if the sender thinks you might liven up the séance by writing back one day, or maybe it’s more like reading a letter to someone as you lean against his or her headstone in the graveyard (except there’s an audience of 800 other users who can log on to listen).

RIP trolling is gross and hard to defend as some kind of important social commentary, but it might be halfway true that, as one troll said, “This isn’t grief, this is boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief.” A need for attention is probably never more justifiable than when one is isolated and traumatized by loss (and isn’t that when the Internet is at its best? When you find connection and support from people whose situations are sad or crappy like yours is sad or crappy, with all of the parallel particulars? Where you can discuss what’s publicly unmentionable with people who understand?); then again, there comes a time when you may want to erase the full answering machine of sepia-toned voices whose bodies have expired and to shut the door to the spooky attic that reminds you of what you’ve lost. It’s an unnatural (perhaps supernatural) adjustment, accepting the animation taken on by the profiles and Twitter accounts of the lifeless — a person who’s constantly in your feed, though no longer on Planet Earth. It’s comforting to think that you can be gone but not forgotten, but it’s a comfort that counteracts the morbidly satisfying idea of the finality of your own death. Your legacy can be tweaked. Would you rather be Jesse Tuck or Winnie Whatsername? It’s not an aspirational immortality, but just like dying in the analog age, I guess you don’t get much of a choice.

Filed Under: Facebook

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Tess Lynch is a contributing writer to Grantland.

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