Friendship – and Death – Online

For most of us, at least (i.e., with the exception of some strands of transhumanism), the rise of digital technologies and media did not somehow eradicate our mortality. But the development of these technologies was (is?) long accompanied by a thematic interest in “digital immortality.” It turns out that there are deep historical backgrounds to this interest: these are in fact distinctively Western as they rest on specific (Western) Christian theological assumptions of a sharp dualism between an immortal soul and mortal body. This dualism was secularized (as a disembodied reason vs. an irrational body) and then “baked into” the underlying assumptions and aims of modern technologies – including our foundational imaginings and discourse surrounding a “bodiless cyberspace” (as in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, 1984). Throughout the 1990s, especially US- based discourse and usages of a primarily US-based internet reflected these dualisms and affiliated dreams of “digital immortality” (Ess 2011). Especially transhumanism exemplifies the ongoing influence of these ancient assumptions and hopes.

This background is useful, first, as it highlights the historical and thereby cultural origins of these views: this should make it easier for students, instructors, and readers from “other” cultural backgrounds to recognize and reflect upon likely differences as well as commonalities with your own assumptions and views. Second, it helps explain the relatively late emergence of “Death Online Research” (DOR). Beginning approximately in 2012 or so, DOR explores emerging practices of “digitally mediated grieving and memorialising,” digital “afterlife,” and so on (DORS4, 2018). Very simply, just as more or less every other aspect of our lives is now inextricably interwoven with our digital media practices, including our uses of social media, so death in all its dimensions and impacts is increasingly expressed through and in these technologies.

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As usual, much of this is beneficent in multiple ways. SNSs and digital communication channels such as Messenger, WhatsApp, etc., allow often far-flung family members and friends to learn about the death of a close friend or relative, share their remembrances and grief, establish online memorials, etc. In particular, Ylva Hård af Segerstad and Dick Kasperowski have documented the experiences of bereaved parents in a closed Facebook group in Sweden. In highly secular–rational Scandinavia, death is largely a taboo topic – the death of one’s child all the more so. At the same time, there is likely nothing so devastating to a parent as the loss of one’s child – and so the need to somehow connect up with others who can understand and be supportive is all the more imperative. No one understands better than other bereaved parents, and so the possibility of making connections with this cohort can be life-saving. Consider this SMS from a bereaved mother:

I’m in a fitting room writing to you. Feel I have to in order not to break down. It is sooo difficult! Why do we have to go through this. Miss my child so I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. Tomorrow is two long months since I hugged my beloved X and I can never again do that. How is it possible? How can a beloved person who was with me every day and who was so warm and wonderful be gone? I think I’m going crazy.

As Hård af Segerstad and Kasperowski further document, this bereaved mother is now able to take up contact with parents like her – parents who know first-hand the thousand despairs and inconsolable grief of losing one’s own child. Here she finds understanding, acceptance, consolation, and massive help toward eventual recovery of her ability to reengage with her life and world.

But, as with any novel technology and application, bringing death, grief, memorialization, and so on into the online world can also be profoundly problematic. An increasingly common problem is learning of the death of a close friend or relative not from a parent or relative, not from a professional counsellor or authority trained in how to break such devastating news – but from an otherwise well-meaning posting on the now deceased person’s Facebook page. That is, someone else – often quite removed from the primary circle of family and friends – learns of Person X’s death and goes straight to his or her profile to post a note of sympathy and condolence. This starts a cycle of others adding their own notes – sometimes well before those within the close circle of friends and family are informed through more regular and comforting channels. Moreover, for those closest to the deceased, these perhaps well-intentioned condolences and expressions of support can begin to ring hollow. In particular, “vicarious grief” (Hovde 2016, 101) or “grief hypejacking” (Abidin 2018, 169f.) is now a well-documented phenomenon in which the poster is more interested in calling attention to himself or herself among the crowd of mourners.

Interestingly – and another index of our moving into a post-digital era – in some cases, these online experiences can lead to a rejection of social media altogether. In her study on “Grief 2.0,” Astrid Linnea Hovde documents how two of her young informants (“Sophie” and “Elisabeth”3) found that working through their grief required the real- world presence of close friends and family. “Sophie,” who lost her sister, commented:

It is so different to talk to them, cry in front of them and just lay there with my head on their lap, than to look at her memorial page to see if someone has written anything there that day.

The contrast between this embodied co-presence and the online world led “Sophie” to conclude:

I was hiding on Facebook before, when I posted things there, I didn’t have to talk about how I was doing. It was comfortable being on Facebook, I didn’t have to face people’s reaction when I talked about [my sister’s death], that was really hard for me to face. On Facebook you don’t see the people you’re talking to, so it gets less scary.

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