Dying in the Age of Facebook

We crave sincerity as much as scholarship

-Michael Jackson 2012: 175

How many dead people do you know on Facebook? I know three. Well, maybe two because one was aware that she was dying and took her page down. For the others, death was a surprise, even though in one case it was planned. Plans can be surprises of sorts.

Many people worry that social media is changing the world for the worse. It is pretty common to hear people lament the lack of face to face communication these days or worry that people are ‘disconnected’ in the age of digital connection. I don’t worry about this. If the undergraduate students I teach have shown me anything, it is that the medium of communication doesn’t over determine its purpose or possibility. Plus, I am a linguistic anthropologist and a human being so I know face to face interaction isn’t a connective walk-in-the-park. One thing I have been dwelling on is how social media alters how we know death.

Two months ago, I saw on twitter that a friend/mentor/colleague died. JJ was the first professor I was a teaching assistant for. We are not far apart in age as she was a veritable academic superstar and I arrived late to the PhD party. She told me early on in the term she had cancer as we walked out of an exam carrying armfuls of Scranton sheets. She was as thoughtful a teacher as she was a thinker and writer. I find myself channelling her when I’m explaining Saussurian linguistics.

The last time I saw JJ was two or three years ago. We were beside each other at a conference. She raised her hand to engage the panel (whose theme I forget) by telling a story about a coyote in her neighbourhood and a string of missing cats, including a three-legged cat she and her partner named Tripod. She said something to the effect that while we might know in the abstract that the coyote and Tripod’s disappearance were connected, we certainly would not want to know this relationship intimately. We purposefully hold things apart. This allows us to love even what may be gone. Like Tripod the cat.

I was angry that she died. I was angry I saw it on Twitter. Tweets don’t hedge. There are no “Are you sitting downs?” or “I have some bad news’”. There are none of the stock phrases that prepare you for imminent pain. The specter of doubt also seems greater when the news of death is sandwiched between hashtags, humble brags and stories about dress colours as optical illusions.

My friend/mentor/colleague AA also died this year. Facebook told me. Someone tagged him in a photo and wrote that they would miss him. His account is still up and sometimes he crosses someone’s mind and they will write to him or about him and their message will show up in my feed as if AA has posted it himself.

AA was a quiet ringleader of a group of grumpy Marxist anthropologists I have hung out with for many years. They like to get together to drink scotch, smoke American Spirit cigarettes and lament  the US economy.  Like me, AA studied mining. AA always made me feel like my ideas were good ones, even if they strayed from Classical Marxist Thought. AA’s grumpy political rants stood in stark contrast to his frequent, sentimental photo uploads to Facebook which chronicled the many birds of his backyard. He had elaborate feeders set out to draw in fowl from far and wide.

In times of distress like the loss of two very wonderful anthropologists, I turn to the insights of Buddhist teacher Micheal Stone. Micheal knows a lot of philosophy and practices from East and West. He has published many books including conversations with French feminist-theorist Luce Irigaray. Since finding his work, I’ve become a devout podcast Buddhist. Feeling the weight of the news of JJ’s and AA’s deaths, I cleaned my kitchen while listening to a talk titled, “Save a Ghost”. In it, Michael says “when we lose someone, all the other losses in our lives pile up”. He also says that our personality is constructed by how we mourn and that mindfulness is the ability to mourn. Micheal isn’t big into the McMindfulness sweeping corporate America. He says that we need to be intimate with what’s happening, but at the same time we need to not hold onto it, like how JJ was with Tripod and AA with his birds. “As we mourn the dead, the dead are alive in us making culture” Michael says. Anthropologists fight a lot about what culture is and isn’t. For some time I had to give up on my commitments in the culture debates and side with Micheal. Social media brings the intimacy of pain and loss. Hurt piles up. News feeds refresh. We can’t hold on.

I am a sociocultural/linguistic anthropologist interested in the place of indigenous life and arctic environments in (inter)national public culture. My primary research examines indigenous-state relations and everyday experiences of extractive development (diamonds and oil) in circumpolar North America. With artist/academic collaborators, Jesse C Jackson (UC Irvine) and Tori Foster (OCAD U), I am developing a set of moving and still images to tell the story of urban life north of the 60th parallel. This new work combines data visualization techniques with more standard anthropological methods. When not north of 60, I have the pleasure of teaching ethnographic writing by way of anthropology at SUNY, Oswego where I am an assistant professor. I am the editor of the Society for the Anthropology of North America's peer reviewed journal, North American Dialogue. You can find me on social media @drlibertybell

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