July 19, 2010

Digital Immortality and the Living

In the Tricycle office, we’ve realized that when promoting blog posts, Tricycle news and other events online, that the Facebook community doesn’t seem to like death. The meaning is playfully two-fold for such a somber subject: Facebook users, in general, do not seem to respond very enthusiastically to posts about death, and more specifically, they fail to click the “Like” button.

It isn’t so hard to believe. Compared to other mediums, Facebook thrives on the idea of life. Both the nature of the content and the means by which it is distributed is social; personal. It revolves around the living and breathing people that you know and what is happening to them in their lives. This makes it all the more difficult when they die, yet remain trapped in the digital system, as a recent article by the New York Times reports. As one interviewee explains:

The service is telling you to reconnect with someone you can’t. If it’s someone that has passed away recently enough, it smarts.

Beyond the trouble of dealing with a recent loss and associated longing is the challenging presentation of the concept that, like the deceased, your life too is limited.

The terrifying underlying realization might just be that perhaps we are wasting our time. In the face of death, is there room to voyeuristically sift through what amounts to a celebration of the self? As we gorge in the spectacular distraction presented by Facebook’s persistent status updates, photo albums and wall posts, are we reaching any kind of realization, besides what our college roommate ate for lunch?

Yet, maybe the presence of the dead on Facebook can have a positive effect, can remind us of our own mortality and push us to move to our full potential and to live better. As Gehlek Rimpoche writes in the Summer 2004 issue of Tricycle:

…this life is wonderful, but there are limitations. Before those limitations take over, achieve what you want to achieve. Do something while you are able to. Right now everything is wonderful, enjoyable, but that well being is temporary. It could change at any minute. Anything can go wrong at any moment.

This talk of death or impermanence is not meant to make you afraid. The whole purpose of it is for you to have compassion for yourself. And travel well.

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Brian Epstein's picture

I find Facebook to be beneficial maintaining relationships and especially renewing old relationships. I also find it best to use it sparingly. I doubt I spend any more time in Facebook than I used to spend on the phone (and I still use the phone with friends and family).

Facebook, television, and other diversions have been used for decades to distract people from thinking about their mortality. We don't even say that someone died. We say that they "passed," more evidence of our denial of our mortality.

I came to terms with my mortality and inevitable death many years ago. It remains to be seen what my feelings will be when I'm faced with the medical diagnosis or accident.

Death is a part of life. Deal with it.

Justin's picture

I've wondered often about whether or not the evolving digital landscape will promote awareness of impermanence or encourage endless distraction. You're right about gorging ourselves on the trivialities on Facebook, but the endless stream of updates may go some lengths to reminding us that there's no fixed points. The digital world is all change all the time - maybe people will meditate on that rather than be entirely distracted. Unlikely, sure, but who knows what the medium may offer as it evolves?
On death on Facebook, though, there are (at least) two sides to the coin.
First, the negative: it gives family and friends a means to cling to memories of the deceased, to keep some semblance of life and interaction long after the person has died. That could in some way be the opposite of embracing change and moving on fluidly. I'm inclined to believe that the lingering shrine or forum or whatever it should be called lends itself more to attachment than anything else.
Second, the positive: there could be endless catharsis through the postmortem postings. Community might be reinforced, the teachings of the person appreciated, bridges mended among the grieving survivors, etc.
It's tricky. And also interesting to imagine what it says about the preservation and perpetuation of an individual's actual essence and legacy.
This is from the lama Namkhai Norbu, talking about Tibetan Buddhist dance - but the content is relevant here:
“The dancing, grinning skeletons express a dynamic vision of death and transformation, unchanging inner essence transcending the constant mutations of externals. Meditation on the impermanence of all phenomena should lead to a joyful freedom from attachment, and not a morbid pessimism.”

Monica's picture

I think it's as simple as people on Facebook don't 'like' death because it seems kind of tacky to 'like' the fact that someone died. Facebook users have been petitioning for a 'dislike' button for a while now just for situations like this. That way we could offer commisserations or condolences when a friend looses their job or when someone posts an obituatary. It's not that people don't appreciate the post about the a death; we want to know those things and like the opportunity to remember those who've passed. We just don't 'like' the death itself.

Margaret Rader's picture

I'm a 74 year old woman and user of facebook, with which I have a love/hate relationship. My brother was late 60's when he found facebook and had a ball connecting with friends, old friends, and making new friends with young friends of his nephews and nieces.
When he died unexpectedly, hiking solo in the Olympics, his facebook wall became a precious place to post messages to him and about him, photos, poems. It allowed us to get in touch with his many friends that we didn't know. His profile is still up and people still occasionally post something about him on it. It's a precious thing. I don't know how long fb will leave it there, but I like the idea that he continues in his odd, virtual way in a place that, for now, we can always find him.

Margaret Rader

Nathan Lustig's picture


I think you're right about many parts Facebook for most people, but it's important to think about other types of digital assets. Almost everything that used to be physical is now digital.

For example, when my Grandma passed away, my two favorite things that I inherited were all of her slides from her many trips to countries around the world and a handwritten recipe book that she used during her life. It was amazing to look at her pictures from her life, especially the ones from the early 1900s.

I digitized many of her slides/pictures and my mom made the recipe book into an annotated digital slide show. She also scanned in all of our family pictures.

I know that my brother and I want to have these photos to be able to show to our children (assuming we have them!) and it's important to me to know that I'll be able to access them in case something happens to someone in my family or to me.

I'm the cofounder of Entrustet.com, a company that helps you make a list of important digital assets and then transfer or delete them after you pass away, so I read lots of aritcles about this subject. Thanks for bringing out a new, interesting perspective to this subject.

Nathan Lustig
coufounder, entrustet.com

Jason White Black Superman's picture

Keep up the Good Work!!!

John's picture

Not sure about death on Facebook. Don't use it myself. Too much about too little.

But I liked Gehlek Rimpoche's quote. A very useful reminder. I needed that little motivator.