Death and Facebook
I’ve written about death and the internet before, three years ago and six years ago, both inspired by hearing about the passing of people I knew in college. Over the weekend, I found out through Facebook that Ben Horne died in the Peruvian Andes while descending from Palcaraju Oeste.
I didn’t know Ben so well in college. He ran the college radio station down the hall from where I worked as an editor for the school newspaper. We had lots of mutual friends but we didn’t talk so much. After graduation, he and I along with few of our mutual friends started blogging, and I kept up with his life for few years before I was overwhelmed with information and other social media. I didn’t realize that he became such an amazing mountaineer, athlete, and affected so many people’s lives, even though I’m not surprised. Like with what happened with my friend Daniel Huffaker six years ago, Ben’s wall (or is it called timeline now?) is becoming a memorial with his friends and families leaving living memories, and I’m only finding out now what an incredible life he lived.
Since I wrote my first post on death and the internet six years ago, Facebook has now adopted a policy for memorializing the accounts of the deceased. You can read the details here, but in short, someone can report an user deceased whose account then become s”memorialized,” which limits its visibility and access.
I am 29 years old and have over 1600 friends on Facebook, most of whom are in my generation. Not surprisingly, my newsfeed these days are bombarded with engagements, weddings, and baby announcements. I can’t go two days without seeing pictures of an engagement ring, wedding dress, or baby as those posts are the most liked and commented, helping it float to the top of my newsfeed. Sometimes I have to remind myself that there are people who are living amazing lives out there who aren’t getting married or having kids, like Ben.
This is my life on the Social Network in my late twenties. What will happen in forty to fifty years, when I’m in my seventies and deaths become more common? While not everyone will die before me, all 1600+ friends I have on Facebook will die someday. Will it still be bearable to log onto Facebook when every week I find out that someone I knew passed away?
Of course death announcements are nothing new. People die, and people find out, but until now, the death of the average man travelled by word of mouth and maybe the local newspaper obituary section. The Facebook wall/timeline/memorial is much richer. There are wonderful messages on Ben’s wall that could be read out at his funeral. We are the first generation to live in the age of digitally extended social networks. We now have the power to casually keep up with the lives of hundreds of people. When the news is positive, this can be great, but when the news is negative, will we be able to deal with it?
For now, I am saddened by the passing of Ben. I wish I kept up with him more since college, and not just find out how incredible he was at the last chapter of his life. Rest in peace Ben.