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Death in Facebook, Facebook and Death - Part Two

If you’re not there, do you exist?

Facebook users can define other users as family members, and how are they related to each other. I don’t remember which of us initiated it, but Tal and I defined each other as siblings, and so when you enter my About section you can see he’s my brother:

Facebook screen shot - my profile

And when you check his About section, you can see I’m his sister:

Facebook screen shot - Tal's profile

Both sides must approve the family relation for it to appear in their profiles. 

People who knew Tal but didn't know his family, and saw his Facebook profile, could tell he had a sister: me. People who were present at his funeral and heard me speak there, could tell he had a sister: me again. But we have another sister, Inbal, who didn’t speak at the funeral nor does she have a Facebook profile - two legitimate personal choices, but the combination of which meant that many people who came to the Shi’va (Seven Days of Mourning, a Jewish tradition) did not even know she existed; they looked for me, but never knew they should probably be looking for her as well. Having had to say “we actually have another sibling” too many times, I ended up posting a clarification in Facebook that week: “We have another sister, Inbal, she’s simply not in Facebook".

A screenshot from my Facebook wall, March 5th 2011
(Tal was killed on March 2nd 2011)

I felt that Facebook became the only prism through which people see - well, anything, really; and that if it noted only one sister, that must be what Tal has: one sister.

If you’re there ,you do exist?

One tragic story shows this well (and thanks to Rinat Korbet for the link): twenty-something years old Jordan Buskirk and Randal Crosley from Indiana, United States, murdered 19 years old Katelyn Wolfe on June 6th, 2013. 

They then posted updates on her Facebook to create the impression she was still alive. 

Understanding murderers is impossible, but it’s easy to understand why they used Facebook to hide their deed: If you’re not there means you do not exist, it must work the other way around as well, meaning that if you're there, you do exist. 

A communication platform, not only with the living

A certain moment in BBC’s Radio 4 excellent radio broadcast, Digital Human (season 2, episode 7), made me feel as if a light bulb lit up over my head, just like it does in cartoons. It was when Dr. Elaine Kasket said (time code 20:10):

"I've talked about Facebook as being a kind of modern-day medium, and the reason I called it that was because I was so struck by how my research participants, and my clients, that have been bereaved and continued to connect on Facbeook, experienced Facebook as pretty much the primary channel by which they were able to communicate directly to the dead. So, in Victorian times, you might go to a seance, you might sit around the table and there'd be a medium there who would be responsible for channeling the communications through to the people on the other side. In this case, Facebook, this technological phenomenon, is the medium. It's not a human medium but it's a technological one, and people are using the site as a conduit, as a channel, through which to get in contact with the dead".      

Upon hearing that (disclosure: I was interviewed to the same episode: time code 11:22, continuously on and off till the end of the program) I suddenly realized this is what I have been doing: Consciously, I was tagging Tal and adding content to his wall so his friends would see and know what was going on, while subconsciously I was doing it so he would see, so he would know. 

On the 19th anniversary of writer and playwright Yigal Mossinson’s death, his son Gili posted something very touching on his own Facebook wall, which I think demonstrates Dr. Kasket’s opinion very well:

A screenshot from Facebook, May 2013

"Nineteen years ago today, my father passed away.I’m sure he’s well settled in the afterlife, and that puny things like the high cost of living concern him much less. My father taught me so much about life, and on my end I’ve been graced with meeting the greatest man I ever have: polite and talented, modest and funny. My father was the salt of the earth, but more than that - he was my best friend. For sixteen years I had the privilege of being a full-time son to him, and I feel the need to write the following:
Father, I know you look at me from above with loving, embracing eyes. After all those years, this day of all days makes being far from you very hard. I know you won’t Like this post, nor will you share it, and I’m pretty sure there’s no internet in heaven. Either way, I’m writing this with all the love in my heart, and with a yearning that will probably never end. 
Father - I love you. 
Yours forever and ever - Gilgil" 

On one end, Gili is well aware of the fact his father isn’t on Facebook: “I know you won’t Like this post; nor will you share it, and I’m pretty sure there’s no internet in heaven". On the other hand, Gili writes this for his father in Facebook; he communicates with him through Facebook. 

Whoever runs Tair Rada’s Facebook account - 13 years old Tair Rada was murdered in December 2006 - takes communicating with the dead one step further, and has been posting in her name many years after her death:

A status posted (from beyond the veil?) by Tair on Purim, February 2013
“To my darlings I wish today a happy Purim (a Jewish holiday involving costumes, much like Halloween), and to my dear ‘friends’ of the past I wish to say only this: no costume can hide the sins of your youth, the changing of heart and the obvious truth”.
(Thanks to Tom Eshchar for the link). 

The posts and clips aren’t simply posted on her profile; they’re posted as if she herself writes them (“my Bat Mitzvah clip” rather than “her Bat Mitzvah clip”) post mortem and in present tense, and some might find them both disturbing and difficult to read:

A status posted on Tair Rada’s wall on Hanukkah, December 2012. 

"Hello everyone. I emerge from the darkness for a moment to wish everyone Shabbat Shalom, and to remind you all to remember me tomorrow, on the eve of Hanukkah, the festival of light; to remember that I, too, wish to no longer be afraid and to emerge from darkness into the light. I hope my voice will be heard, and that this long darkness will come to an end. I wish you a happy holiday - you, your families, and my beloved family as well. I will do my best to return tomorrow, I’m just a bit in a hurry here because I had traditional Jewish upbringing (Jews are required to avoid all ‘work’ - all computer activities included - during Shabbat, which is clearly starting while ‘Tair’ is posting this) and I respect my family and would not wish to hurt them. Shabbat Shalom, friends. I promise I’ll accept any friend requests that might arrive during the weekend as soon as I return. Shabbat Shalom".

Reading this makes me wonder who posts those updates - is it her lawyer or her family? Is this part of a campaign designed to keep her murder present in the media, or is this simply a way for the family members to keep in touch with her, to express their pain and any criticism they have regarding the investigation?

I wrote a note to whoever updates her profile; I’ll update here once I have a reply. 

Happy Birthday

Birthdays are a good opportunity for finding out which of the deceased’s Facebook friends actually knew them, for whom the birthday is nothing but a painful reminder, and those who didn’t know them - for whom the birthday notice is just another Facebook notice, which they reply with wishes for someone they, in fact, don’t know. 

Avi Cohen died on August 2012. On his birthday the following year, in April, my friend Doron Ofek posted his feelings with razor sharpness:

"Again we get a glimpse of Facebook’s morbid mishaps. 
On the right I have a notice stating it’s Avi Cohen’s birthday today (I won’t link to his page, it feels unfair). I went to his profile out of curiosity; it seems nobody handles it nor was it updated, because, much to my chagrin, I saw people were posting happy birthdays there… wishing him to live happily ever after. 
Avi died a few months ago in a motorbike accident.
We have become the kind of people who spill their thoughts mindlessly without even once checking if it’s right, if it’s proper… this isn’t the first time I see something like this". 

Here are a few examples of the cacophony found on Avi’s wall on April 2013, about eight months after his passing:

A birthday greeting on Avi’s wall on April 2013, from someone unaware of his death

“Dear Avi, happy birthday even though you’re no longer physically with us. Rest in peace".
A birthday greeting on Avi’s wall on that very day, from someone expressing pain over his passing

“Happy birthday Avi, may all of your wishes come true..!”
A birthday greeting from someone unaware of Avi’s death

“I wish… dear friend, I hope you found peace up there. We miss you horribly down here. Happy birthday, angel".
A birthday greeting on the same wall, that same day, from a friend missing Avi

"Mazal Tov Avi!!!"
Another greeting, similar yet different, from someone unaware of Avi’s death

"Avi, we’re celebrating your birthday. Celebrating with you every time we meet, or take a trip. Your image goes everywhere with us, we have pictures from trips and various meetups where you sit in the centre with that familiar smile. I hope you’re in a good place now, one full of motorbikes, and that you’re riding in the heavens. Friend, you are missed".  
A friend missing Avi on his birthday

"Happy birthday!"

"Happy birthday Avi, many warm wishes"

"Happy birthday Avi :) All the best :) "
Three Facebook friends who apparently didn’t really know Avi, wishing him a happy birthday

"You’re somewhere out there… unforgettable. But here, deep in my heart, I feel you more than most". 
A friend communicating with Avi on his birthday

"Happy birthday buddy! All the best!"
A friend posting a generic ‘best wishes’ on Avi’s birthday

"Dear Avi, you are deeply missed in our hearts. We stand in this memorial day, your birthday, and remember you, friend. You remain forever special in our hearts; rest in peace".
A friend commemorating Avi on his birthday

"Happy birthday and a happy holiday…"
A friend unaware of Avi’s death dedicates a song to him for his birthday

"My dear, late Avi Cohen: even when the light shines on us from the treetop, the roots still burrow deep in the ground in such autumn-fall days. Happy birthday". 
A friend putting effort, thought and emotion into the greeting, and communicating them through Avi’s wall

"Happy birthday!"
And, on the same wall, a facebook friend decorates Avi’s wall with a balloon. 

Both me and Doron found this distressing, but Avi’s daughter, Lilach Cohen Shilo, didn’t feel the same when I interviewed her:

“It was nice to see all the greetings, and very touching to see how loved he was, how loved and missed he still is. Those who don’t know he passed away were probably only acquaintances, not anyone close, so I don’t mind them not knowing. He had thousands of Facebook friends! Not all of them were close to him…”

As noted on this post’s first part - Death in Facebook, Facebook and Death - we see, time and time again, that this is a very personal experience: that which makes one person uncomfortable might bring comfort to another. 

Facebook allows us to post birthday greetings to anyone directly from our wall, without having us ‘bother’ to go to their timeline. I suggest not to use this option, to rather choose to enter the friend’s profile at least once a year, on their birthday - so that, if the worst had happened, at least you will know. This is particularly relevant with people you don’t know so well, or have not been in touch with - or in touch with their profile - for a while. 

Since there is still no clear etiquette regarding deceased in Facebook (in general) or on their birthdays (specifically), this topic comes up even in communities dedicated to entirely different things - for example, the Ynet Kosher Food community (an online forum). (thanks to Tzach Ben Yehuda for the link):

A screenshot from the Ynet Kosher Food community, November 2011

“A sensitive question:What do you do if one of your Facebook friends had passed away? Do you remove them from your friends list? My sister in law passed away a few months back and every time I open my Facebook her image pops up, and I scroll through the entire history and my heart breaks each time anew. On one hand, I can’t bring myself to delete her! On the other hand, this is really hard! I’m full of questions today".
A screenshot from the Ynet Kosher Food community, November 2011

"Topic: The day before yesterday Fcabook reminded me about a Birthday of a friend who passed away.   
A few months back I entered her page and wrote a few words about her birthday and about how much I miss her. I hope this might comfort her family some. Her children, who are already grown ups, sometimes go there and write things directed at her. 
And there’s the page of our friend Gadi - we had such a reminder on his birthday as well, I wrote something and later I saw more people did the same. Not happy birthday greetings of course, but words of love and longing to this dear man, a food forum veteran who also visited our own Kosher food forum once in a while. It’s hard to say final goodbyes, and as another person here wrote, this keeps the deceased present in a way, along with the good memories they left of us".
A screenshot from the Ynet Kosher Food community, November 2011
“Topic: A good friend and a member of a forum passed away. Her page is active and we post in it.It has become a memorial page for her. She would have celebrated her birthday two weeks ago, so rather than posting ‘happy birthday’ on her wall we all posted memories and clips of music she liked, etc.. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re free to delete or block it. Personally I think it’s a memorial - even though it breaks our hearts".

A screenshot from the Ynet Kosher Food community, November 2011
“Topic: Another bitter story. One of my facebook friends committed suicide two years ago. He was a charming person I went to highschool with, until he couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t in touch with him, barring the odd peeking in his Facebook. Friends started posting their longing on his page, and every once in a while a heart-wrenching status turned up on my feed. Every year I’m reminded of his birthday by Facebook, and then there’s traffic in his page. And what’s rotten? That he’d made a few friends abroad during his travels, and they post the most lovely wishes, wishing him a happy life. Nobody has the guts to translate the original obituary for them and explain he can’t Like their posts. Moreover - here’s a few negative thoughts about those automatic greetings some people send: I can live with those being impersonal - in Facebook most people do the bare minimum needed with birthday greetings, and the really close friends either call you or physically celebrate with you. But when one of those automatic greetings shows up on his wall, full of cheery balloons and all, it really irritates me".

I agree with that post. It really irritates me as well. 

When people post birthday greetings regarding a long happy life on Tal’s wall I know that they’re unaware of the fact he’d passed away, and therefore I know they don’t know him. And then it irks and saddens me that there’s so many people who knew Tal and who love him still, who would have loved to be his Facebook friends but they aren’t - and there’s also a few fake profiles and a few people who have no idea who he was, who are his Facebook friends. 

Yossi Fink wrote in "Ace" site about how he feels in such birthdays - thanks to Ronni Kives for the link:

"My facebook friend, Alona Koren, had a birthday on February 4th. Many friends posted greetings on her wall, some just wrote a generic ‘happy birthday’ and others were more creative - for example, ‘wishes for many minutes that will grow to be a great time of new experiences, action and happiness for it all’. This really looked like any other Facebook page in the owner’s birthday, only in this case Alona no longer lives, she passed away this last October". 

Fink’s link to Alona's profile is no longer valid; I hope that’s due to her family’s choice and not another one of Facebook’s mishaps. 

When reading the headline of Fink's article, stating it's “The weirdest thing I’ve seen on Facebook - prepare yourselves for a shock”, one must remember that this article was posted on March 2012. Nowadays it’s hard to believe it would have gotten a similar headline; statistics tell us that three Facebook users die every minute, which means we are all surrounded by profiles of people who have already passed away, and most of us have already, most likely, experienced the birthday of a deceased Facebook friend.

"I Liked a Memorial Ceremony"

Alon Metrikin-Gold amazed me with his Spoken Word performance (in Hebrew only, sorry), which took place on April 2012 on a Slam Poetry evening in Tel Aviv: “I Liked A Memorial Ceremony”:

“There’s no death in Facebook. There’s only an event called ‘Funeral’. There’s no grief or pain, only a status updating the memorial’s time. Against all laws of nature, her death doesn’t stop her getting new messages, sending ones of her own and updating when her birthday is coming. Her death as a whole boils down to a status change, and, like a ghost, she’s there with all my friends, entirely blending in.
... I send her songs and pictures from beyond the veil-pages, waiting for her to reply, for her to say ‘it’s my birthday today, would you like to post on my wall?”

This was part two. If you want to read the first part of 'Death in Facebook, Facebook and death', click here

Thank you Aya Shacham-Doman for translating this post. 

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