Sunday, January 23, 2011
Something odd and widely acknowledged happens at a person’s death; not only do we tend to sit through a terrifically fictitious recount of that person’s life, sobbing through the sugary fabrications woven through an otherwise dull or less-than-perfect collective memory, we actually nod reverently as if these tales were true, and eventually, out of what we might believe to be a mark of respect or simply as a human reaction to only remember the good, we begin to accept it all as truths.
It seems that every person becomes a hero after death, which in turn distorts and disintegrates the actual memory of who they were. Surely there’s some staggering irony there, in our idea of respecting the dead, heralding falsehood over reality, despite how ugly or how disappointing it might be. Idealising the dead is hardly new, both in practice and in its acknowledgement, but how does remembering the dead change now with the creation of the online presence, something that outlives us, and something that, with all its candid images, vulgar wall posts and vacuous updates, provides an honest reflection of who we are?
Social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter have been forced to deal with the sensitive issue of deceased members, with an estimation of one and a half million Facebook users dying each year. A surviving profile page can potentially add to the pain suffered by friends and relatives left behind, with reminders popping up on the sidebar for users to ‘reconnect’ with a dead loved one, and relatives are now given the option of deleting an account, preserving it as an inactive tribute page, or retaining it just as it is. The current policies by these sites require proof of death, usually with the uncomfortable provision of details, and decisions remain entirely in the hands of grieving relatives. Critics argue that ideally users should be given the options in their account settings, of what should happen to their page in the circumstance of death, but so far it is up to those left behind, to decide whether or not to transform the page into a sort of online memorial. In such a case, the memorial often remains a brutally honest portrayal of a person; from boozy pictures in sleazy nightclubs to heart-felt rants and musings in the form of status updates, everything remains untarnished and untouched, which preserves an accurate memory of a person, something irrefutable and unmalleable because all of it is right there, digital warts and all.
I remember hearing once that a good friend knows to delete your internet history when you die, and certainly many people would be happy with the expectation that the memory people will have of them after death will be dutifully manipulated beyond recognition, but with the openness and candour that now constructs the nature of the online presence, it appears that people are more willing to leave an authentic mark of themselves, ready and ambitious to share with the world at least some facet of who they are, declaring and confirming their existence with every tweet and status update, announcing every like, every dislike, renouncing every ounce of privacy in thought or in habit and summoning every excess of exhibitionism, to offer what they believe to be an accurate portrayal of who they are, despite whether it should be respectful of favourable. Considering this, preserving this digital echo of a person seems like the right thing to do, in remembering a person in the way they wanted to be acknowledged in life.