Maybe heaven is a place on earth. But if so, it’s certainly wanting. It doesn’t quite feel like San Junipero, the fictional party town in an episode of Black Mirror occupied by dead or dying people on earth who’ve plugged in their consciousness to experience a kind of virtual group heaven in a younger body. Instead, in this life, it’s like Facebook — or, rather, it is Facebook.
Increasingly, Facebook is a digital cemetery where friends and loved ones can still interact with what’s left of our digital remains. And a new study suggests that if Facebook doesn’t recruit new members, then in 50 years or by 2070, the deceased will outnumber the living. It will be a social network for hundreds of millions of dead people.
Currently there are some 50 million dead users on Facebook; one study found that 8,000 Facebook users die every day. By 2100, that number will be closer to 1.4 billion users, largely expected to be concentrated in South Asia and Africa. Then what? Or what now, for that matter?
For a glimpse into the future, I can go look at my dead mother’s page. I try not to. It’s not just because our relationship was complicated, and not just because she died suddenly one night in 2016 a week before Christmas, only a couple of months after an ALS diagnosis, sooner than even the rapidly declining cases warned. It’s mostly because her page has the distinct vibe of a place left in a hurry with no planning, a house not tidied up before the guests arrive.
It’s not just a symbol of her demise, either, but other relationships, too. An old friend lamented in a status update on my mom’s page that she didn’t even know Mom was dead, urging people to text their loved ones lest they, too, be blindsided. My sister’s boyfriend told Mom he wishes she could see how great they’re doing and how proud she’d be; they’ve since broken up. A third update was a clueless friend still wishing her a happy birthday.
When I’m reminded to go to my mother’s page, usually because of a birthday notification or seeing a mutual friend or family member has posted an update there, it’s almost like slowing down to gawk at a car crash. I’ll glance long enough at her last picture to remember the last photo taken, sometimes, with morbid curiosity, to see if I can tell she was about to die soon. Then I’ll speed-click away for some other distraction, a digital palate cleanser.
This kind of jarring reminder of loss doesn’t help us actually grieve or truly let go, and the problem is only going to get worse. The numbers of Facebook’s deceased are dominating the headlines for good reason, but the real question is what responsibility Facebook has to those people, to their data and to all of us left behind — the personal information it hosts and sells advertisers and its preservation or disposal. And what that’s going to mean for us, the grieving.
There are, of course, ethics at stake here, too, which is why the researchers state in a release about the research that Facebook can’t handle this responsibility alone, but should “invite historians, archivists, archaeologists and ethicists to participate in the process of curating the vast volume of accumulated data that we leave behind as we pass away. This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead.”
It’s not that Facebook hasn’t done anything to manage the situation: You can memorialize a page so that it’s preserved as it was, and even post updates on a separate tribute page that doesn’t interrupt the final timeline. To do so, you have to notify them and provide proof of the death. In such cases, they no longer push notifications for event invites, birthdays or other awkward reminders.
Technology is always either catching up with us, or we’re catching up with it. In the case of managing digital remains, it’s both. But what we as human beings haven’t caught up to yet is the fact that no matter what controls Facebook puts in place, the simple fact of knowing the person’s once-tended-to social media page is just sitting there, floating around in the ether, changes the grieving process, even if there is no notification bell to beckon you to the digital site.
Burying someone in real life and holding a memorial service is a deliberate process; driving to a cemetery on the burial date or even afterward is also something one can mentally prep for. Ending up on a Facebook page of your dead friend, mother, child or coworker can still happen accidentally, and the lack of formal barriers to that process means relying entirely on one’s own ability to exercise caution and restraint.
Grief experts say that this instant access is both improving and confusing the grief process. One the one hand, there is an entire community to connect with at 2 a.m. if you’re so inclined, and that’s often when we may be grieving the hardest. On the other hand, the fact that there’s a community to connect with at 2 a.m., a page to pour your heart out to, might make some people give less consideration to what they’re putting out there. And when the activity on the deceased person’s page trickles down to a lull, the loss suddenly becomes permanent in a way it may never have until that moment.
Add to this that alongside the rise in digital memorial sites such as World Wide Cemetery and increasingly now Facebook, more and more people are skipping traditional memorials, but we’re also skipping traditional burials — cremation has increased nearly 30 percent in the last 10 years. Now some 44 percent of all North American deaths are now cremation. This is happening as we max out the available real estate in cities across the world to accommodate the 55 million people who die worldwide annually.
In other words, we’re running out of physical space to grieve our loved ones. Will we eventually run out of digital space? What happens in the event of a technological mishap? Regardless, there is no going back to a pre-digital world where a moment, a sob, a reflection, a loss is not in some form or another just a click over, for better or for worse.
In my case, that simple shift has forced me to wonder where, exactly, a dead person “lives” once they’ve passed on. I know it’s not really my mother there on Facebook, but as she was cremated with no burial site, it’s as much of her as there is anywhere outside a bag of ashes or a box of old photos.
Or is it? I can also return to her last text any time I like, wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving. Like picking at a scab, sometimes I can’t resist; other times I am somehow able to let it heal awhile on its own with no disruption. It is one thing to manage the trail of my own thoughts and slow them down; it’s quite another for such reminders to pop out against my will.
The experience sometimes leaves me with the distinct feeling that she’s spread out everywhere all the time, lurking, or at least too easy to stumble onto. In my phone, on my laptop, in the photos in the box, in the cookbook she gave me on the counter. One errant search in my email and I can accidentally produce an old email from years ago: a link to a story about various candy bars being recalled.
So, then, where is she? Is she everywhere? Is she nowhere? It’s Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero” all over again. Even if I delete my mother’s account, traces of it will stay in Facebook’s database indefinitely — a permanent virtual heaven. Given the chance to simply die and cease our existence, or move our consciousness into a digitally shared experience with everyone else, forces us to ask: Are we somewhere when we die now? Are we nowhere? If nothing else, living or dead, we will all still be on Facebook.