On Social Media You Live Forever

I was almost apprehensive about logging in to my LinkedIn profile the other day. I knew that amongst all the connection suggestions, requests, anniversaries and so forth, I would find that one pending suggestion to connect to my brother Boris who had died tragically a few months earlier.

As I battled in and out of grief, the simple prospect of seeing his name rendered me even more grief stricken and plunged me into sadness and despair. For me, a connection suggestion meant that that connection was alive, and I knew fully well that he was not, so why did LinkedIn, Facebook and all their consorts simply not have a clue?

This wasn’t the first time that social media had proved insensitive. Facebook stubbornly reminded me of the birthdays of a friend who had committed suicide a few years earlier after a terrible bout with mental illness. Losing her was still very painful and birthday notifications on what was usually her special day were deeply distressing to me.

As with all the loved ones that I had lost, year after year, Facebook made it a point to stubbornly remind me of their birthdays, and indeed as expected, year after year, I experienced much sadness and pain during these days which had once been moments of great joy and happiness.

For the case of my brother, it was from my point of view easy to figure out he had passed. His sudden and tragic death had been reported upon in the media. He was very popular and everyone in our city spoke about his death. Over 500 people attended his funeral from his childhood friends to his judo students, his business partners, his work colleagues and his school teachers. I also announced his passing on Facebook — a post which had received the most sad emojis, sympathies and comments ever since I joined that community. Surely Facebook of all places who can identify the same face and tag it with a familiar name, knew that he had passed. So, how come among this proliferation of information or even information overload concerning my brother’s death was social media unable to algorithm him out of future friendship suggestions or “make him a party for his upcoming birthday” recommendations ?

I started digging into the terms and conditions of these channels to understand how to alert them to his passing. It was clear that only his spouse was able to delete his accounts and this after a substantial amount of procedures which my sister in law could not immediately undertake due to the burden of responsibility she now had as a widow with two young children.

I thought I should just ignore the connection suggestion and courageously mouse over it each time I logged in, but after a while this became untenable. Just seeing his name triggered an avalanche of painful emotions running along the marathon of grief.

I considered accepting the connection suggestion keeping in mind that this would be one connection that I would never have a response from or receive the familiar notification “Boris Stevens accepted your connection request”, and this plunged me yet again into much sadness.

I then started thinking of the millions of connection requests out there that would never get a response for the exact same reason and realized that social media in as much as it offers consolation through sympathies and kind words from friends upon the decease of a loved one, also contributes to perpetuating the cycle of grief through never truly acknowledging the death of that same loved one. To move on, one must face reality, one must acknowledge the absence and not imagine that the loved one lives on somewhere. In this case, in a virtual reality dreamland of social media where only the eternity exists.

This thought kept on nagging at me as I wondered how it would feel like 30 years down the road when most of my friends were likely to have passed. When I got to the point where the number of friends dead way outnumbered those that were alive. When birthday notifications will remind me more of funerals past, of eulogies, of “last time I saw you” memories, of long illnesses or short ones? Would Facebook and the rest have learnt to be less insensitive in order to preserve my fragile serenity, to not wake me up with birthday notifications of all those that I have loved and lost ?

Will social media take steps to interlink feeds with interfaces — match information to status updates and send you inspirational messages when you are feeling down, send you get well notes when you are in hospital, or congratulations on your wedding day or the birth of your child or sympathies when you lose someone dear? Will social media soon learn to be more smart, more emotionally intelligent?

Some would argue that giving social media that power would take us to an Orwellian society with “big brother” always watching over us — always in our business. I would argue that this is already the case, the US immigration services can access all of your social media data and location services on apps such as Uber and Snapchat can tell anyone where you are. The capacity to profile you is already there, marketeers make the most of it through personalized adverts, why can’t social media use it to save you from emotional distress in times of grief?

Having said all this, I can also understand that some may appreciate and like the connection suggestions or birthday notifications of their deceased. It may give them great consolation to see that even though their loved ones have left the physical realm, they somehow still live on in the virtual space of social media forever.

I am a bit more of a realist however and my message to the Mark Zukerbergs and Jeff Weiners of the world is that human beings don’t live forever — not even on social media. If social media companies can take action to make their platforms more human, more empathetic, then I for one am sure to “like”’or even better to “love” this initiative.

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I write about racism, but there are so many other things I would like to write about instead. Help me dismantle racism so that I can get to that.

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