If a public figure’s name is trending on Twitter, you can generally assume one of the following: They just cut their hair (GASP!), updated their relationship status or died.

Aug 22, 2012 at 8:51 am

If a public figure’s name is trending on Twitter, you can generally assume one of the following: They just cut their hair (GASP!), updated their relationship status or died. More and more frequently I am discovering that a famous person has passed away the same way I find out a lot of stuff these days — through social media.

I already believe there’s a sense of desperation in messaging a superstar. (Out of all the delusional Facebook requests Lady Gaga receives in a day, do you really think she’s going to respond to comment No. 170,983?) And when a celebrity passes away, their blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed flood with everything from cheap, meaningless “RIP!”s to thoughtful reflections on the star’s impact on one’s life. It’s kind of weird, but so is being in the spotlight. It’s different for the rest of us, as regular humans. Isn’t it?

Several weeks ago, I was in a Facebook wormhole when I noticed a number of my friends posting cryptic messages on the wall of another. While I was “FB friends” with this individual, we by no means had a deep or personal relationship. We were mostly acquaintances with mutual associates. (Twenty-three to be exact. Thanks for the stats, Zuck.) Because of the nature of these incoming posts inexplicably popping up on my feed, I could tell something serious had happened: an illness, injury or death.

I immediately felt like an involuntary voyeur — it’s one thing to browse pictures of your estranged best-friend-from-third-grade’s wedding; it’s another to learn serious news in such an impersonal way. This friend’s wall became something of a memorial as stories, questions and updates filled the page. While the fine line between sharing memories and spreading gossip made me incredibly uncomfortable, it was clearly some people’s only means of communication on the subject.

Sites like Twitter and Facebook are used as much for connecting friends as they are for sharing content and breaking news. Should a regular, non-famous person’s death be treated like that? A race to share a memory of the deceased first?
Not long after I began thinking about this, my mother called to inform me that my uncle had passed away. It wasn’t a shock — he’d been sick for some time, and he was ready. I was mostly relieved he was no longer in pain. Later that night, during another Facebook scroll-fest, I noticed a family friend had posted about my uncle’s death just minutes after my mother called me. I didn’t feel as uneasy as with the previous situation; he was as much her friend as he was my uncle, and it was a subtle, respectful post. Thankfully, I had heard the news in advance. But it further pushed me to ask: What happens to Facebook when you die?

Our Internet identities outliving us can be awesome or terrifying, depending on who you are and what you believe. If you plan on looking down from a comfy cloud and seeing your friends’ notes on your defunct Tumblr, maybe that’s cool. Your legacy outlived you. But if you think there’s a possibility you won’t become a ghost/angel/zombie secretly spying on naked people and tricking your friends (well, that’s what I’d do post-mortem), it’s a bit odd and almost sad to think of people reaching out without getting a “like” back from you.

I remembered a This American Life story, from the most recent theater event, about a photographer whose images were discovered years after her death. Vivian Maier was a very peculiar, incredibly private street photographer. The few alive who knew her agreed she would not want her photographs circling around the world in 2012. But these pictures are undeniably incredible black-and-whites capturing palpable energy and emotion. People love them, and Maier is nowhere around to deal with unwanted fame or attention. What harm does it do to share them, despite her assumed wishes?

I suppose the same idea carries over to coping with death. We like to think we honor a deceased person’s memory, but what we really want to do is honor our memories of them. People in grief need to cope, to somehow keep their loved one’s memory alive. If writing open letters on a social network helps a person deal, who’s to say that’s so bad?
Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the thought of people posting memories about a dead me on the Internet, but, furthermore, I’m uncomfortable with the thought of one day dying. Beyond that, I suppose I do want my loved ones to cope in whatever way works for them. If I end up with a posthumous hashtag, so be it.

CONTACT JAC KERN: [email protected]