The last four months of 2012 was a difficult period in which three of my friends died. In September, my friend Jo suddenly passed away, leaving behind two young children and her husband, without warning. I still don’t know exactly what she died from. I found out about this because my best friend Jon contacted me on Facebook to tell me what had happened. We had all been part of an extensive circle of friends in London in the eighties, now scattered further afield but keeping in contact to one extent or another via social media. I hadn’t seen Jo for over twenty years, apart from opening the Guardian one day in recent years to see she was a contributor, but not face to face. So, finding her on Facebook was a delight and we had chatted about meeting up in the UK sometime soon, though hadn’t quite got round to it.
The news of her death came as something of a shock. Jon and I got together on Skype and reminisced about London days and how we had all been connected, recalling vignettes and Jon reminding me of how Jo had introduced him to the, now lost, love of his life. I was still trying to come to terms with this news when Jon also died a month later. It wasn’t entirely unexpected as he had had two rounds of chemotherapy to treat lymphoma. He had spent the period posting pictures of his NHS food to Facebook, exhorting followers to try and guess what it was he was being asked to eat. Nonetheless, nobody thought he was going to die, of pneumonia, just when he did and Facebook played a big part in the outpouring of grief when he passed. Funeral arrangements, and discussions about how to conduct his memorial service and wake where all played out on the social network. This was when things began to take a slightly unsettling turn, however, as someone evidently had access to his Facebook account and odd things started to appear: references to him liking songs with the word ‘ghost’ in the title; an ex-amour appearing as a new relationship and the like, leaving some followers in his network distressed. I looked at the advice section about such circumstances and applied to have his Facebook account memorialised, preventing anyone from posting in his name, but allowing existing friends to add to his wall.
Nevertheless, the existence of the page was useful in helping to come to terms with his departure. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the timeline that was most significant. I spent an evening looking through the posts on his wall charting all the changes in his life since he had joined Facebook: his moving from London to Bristol, the various events and visits, his illness and treatment and the rest, right up until they stopped. I read the direct messages we had sent each other including, poignantly, the ones about Jo’s death the month before. I guess it was the latter day equivalent of dusting down the photo album at such times except, of course, that the photos were also there on Facebook, along with the odd video, tagged and titled and timelined.
I haven’t yet really come to terms with either of them dying so closely together, but the connectedness of social media and the way in which we were all able to support each other at such a distressing time was significant, I felt. Jon wasn’t a prolific Tweeter, but I read his Twitter contributions too and it helped remind me of his quick wit and skill with a crafted phrase, and this also made things easier.
Move along my Facebook timeline to the beginning of December, a mere three months after Jo’s death, and Rob, a friend from my adopted hometown here in Spain, is the next sad departure. He’d only joined Facebook in July of last year and hadn’t really embraced the idea of social networking, being old school, a voracious real life networker and in the process of retiring from his working life. He, too, died suddenly and the shock of this to his followers is also echoed on his timeline, in this case with YouTube posts reflecting his musical tastes and his popularity with his friends.
So what happens now that my friends are gone from the real world, but still present in my online communities? Those whose accounts were not memorialised are still appearing as suggestions as to ‘people you might know’ on other friends’ pages, one or two of whom have commented that they find this odd or unsettling. People still comment on their walls from time to time, as if they were talking to them, knowing fully that they’ve moved on. I find this a reasonable response and if it helps them to say goodbye, then that’s all to the good. Personally, I’ve created a Facebook sub category labelled ‘Deceased’ and moved them in to it, though ironically the memorialised account won’t allow me to do that, and I recently posted a birthday message on Jon’s wall, though I struggled to find the right words.
I’m glad that their accounts survive, even if sadly they do not. I sometimes take a look when I’m thinking about them, and it helps me to remember them as they were and move on. As time passes, if Facebook survives, and there is no reason to suggest it won’t even as it continues to morph into other iterations, its initial role of connecting people with each other across the globe will change too. The timeline adds an additional dimension to it, connecting people across time and space. Connecting, in a healthy and cathartic way, the living with the dead.