Illustration: Shashwat Sahay

LIFE HONESTLY

Is there ever a good way to deal with death on Facebook?

“Liking” a post about someone’s death doesn’t seems right, but will a new “Dislike” button be the answer, wonders Caroline Kepnes

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By Caroline Kepnes on

We all know the feeling. You’re scrolling through your news feed on Facebook, the clickbait video recipes. My favourite hyperbolic post of late: “This man will blend bananas and eggs and you won’t believe what happens next! Your life will never be the same!” You keep going. Someone’s cute kid did something cute. Someone hates a politician. Someone loves a politician. Someone adds a quirky hotel on a remote island to the bucket list and someone else is having the #BestDayEver and then there it is. 

Someone’s dead. 

You can hit the “Like” button. You feel awkward, sure, but most users understand that “Liking” something doesn’t mean you “like” it. You can leave a comment to clarify your feelings. Or you can scroll onward, searching for those puppies. You can process your grief offline, which is an understandable route. We’ve all bemoaned the queasy feeling you get when Liking devastating news. Case in point: Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a beach. You see this child in his red shirt and his blue shorts and this child is dead and the refugee problem is enormous, tragic. It’s a hard thing, hitting that Like button.

It’s no wonder that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has, at long last, decided to provide another option, the much-debated “Dislike” button. His logic is simple: “Not every moment is a good moment.” Indeed. We live in a world where bad things happen. There is much to “Dislike”. However, scroll to the comments on any news story, and you’ll be reminded that many humans are at ease expressing hostility, disgust, rage, etc. The internet is a nasty place. And, soon, it will be possible to publicly dislike the birth of a child, the cure of a disease, the death of an ex. But you can’t have it both ways. Without a Dislike button, we’re back where we started, wincing as we Like an image of a dead toddler.

Now, every user will face a Like or Dislike debate when confronted with a death. The Big Huge Young Celebrity whose death is shocking, untimely, trending. 

Dislike. After all, she’s too young. 

Scratch that. Like. After all, only the good die young.

The Big Huge Old Celebrity whose death is expected, timely, trending. 

Like. After all, he had a full life.

Dislike. After all, he seemed like he had so much more to give.

Headlines deaths that lead into charged political debates will probably elicit a mix of Like/Dislike. In my hometown, as in many communities, the online news of opiate-related deaths is often accompanied by spirited debate over public policy regarding addiction and treatment. There are people out there who, when given the choice, will “Like” announcements of overdoses fatalities. In turn, there are, of course, people who will “Dislike” overdose fatalities. It’s going to be loud. Reddit style, yay or nay. You understand why Mark Zuckerberg resisted the Dislike button. It’s a weapon. A vote. A poisonous arrow. A thumbs down. 

The internet is a nasty place. And, soon, it will be possible to publicly dislike the birth of a child, the cure of a disease, the death of an ex

You casually hit the Like button because “Liking” is benign. Positive. But how will it feel to work that Dislike button on a daily basis? Will we need a Hate button for things like the death of a Facebook friend you actually did know? Think about it. Someone you barely know passes away. You forgot he existed, only remembered when you heard the bad news. He’s not really your friend. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says it’s impossible, psychologically, to have more than 150 friends. You have 852. But you’re not a monster. Facebook is the monster. You’re saddened. You dislike death. Who doesn’t? But then, you never wrote on his wall, save that annual, obligatory Happy Birthday message. You’re really going to Dislike his death when you never Liked all his pictures of his sunsets and cheeseburgers? And you’re going to use that same Dislike button to express your feelings about your favourite restaurant lying about calorie content of their Mac & Cheese, your mother dying, the horror of that toddler refugee lying in the sand, dead?   

Facebook has changed the way we deal with death. When it’s someone you know, you are compelled to make a statement. Post a picture. You’re a mess, but it’s your duty to pull yourself together and post, even a simple RIP. As you process your emotions, you are to share them. And should you post something from the funeral? Is that tacky? Is that making death about you? Oh look at me, all dressed up and brave. A few days after the funeral, you are bleary. You’re on Facebook, zoning out, and something on The Onion makes you cackle. Do you share it? God, no. You’re not a sociopath. You are mourning. You are not on Facebook, even though you are. But how long until you can post something from The Onion? You don’t know. A year later, you get a Time Hop alert: it’s the anniversary of his death! Here you go again. And now, someone will be able to pointedly Dislike your every death-related online move. Oy.

You’ve probably noticed the vitriol when people over 20 mourn their recently deceased grandparents. There’s that “friend” who comments, You’re lucky you had a grandfather and you’re lucky he lived so long and you should be counting your blessings because other people don’t even have grandparents. Now, imagine adding a quantitative aspect to this judgment. Your grandma dies and you wake up to 43 Likes and 21 Dislikes. Do you de-friend the Dislikers? Do you block them, so you can keep them in your circle yet obfuscate their activity? Fun! And what if that blocked semi-friend dies? Disliking the death of a friend you blocked for being nasty about your beloved dead grandmother – this is where we’re headed. We have friends who announce their desire to come online for a lift. Bring them down, they’ll de-friend you and block you. But now they might keep you around to Dislike you, teach you. Again: fun!

And what if you’re dealing with a slow-moving death? If you’re terminally ill and you post about chemo, are you gunning for Likes or Dislikes? Do we Dislike pictures of the ailing, the weak? Do we Like throwback pictures of those sick people when they were younger, healthier, even though said pictures are a grim reminder of how the mighty have fallen? Forecasting snow doesn’t make it any easier to shovel it. It breaks your back, either way. Someone who’s been dying on Facebook for two years passes away and you’re still caught off guard. You thought you’d have something genius to say. You don’t. You hit Dislike. And you shake your head at the people who hit the Like button, but then you realise that’s nothing new. When someone in pain dies, people love to say he’s at peace now. And, surely, those people will try to be positive when faced with the abyss, cheerily pointing toward heaven, Liking the idea of the sick person out of pain. It’s nothing new. But it is more explicit, somehow.

And should you post something from the funeral? Is that tacky? Is that making death about you? Oh look at me, all dressed up and brave

After all, on Facebook, in all digital realms, you can erase your pores and filter the sunset. You can turn a lousy weekend of self-pity into a dreamy daze of fun. But death is tricky. It’s the end of a conversation. It’s the beginning of that most puzzling, socially awkward event: 

Mourning on Facebook. Deathbook. 

Robin Williams dies and the outpouring of love is sweet, but you wonder, when did we all become PhDs in Robin Williams? And then a young person dies and the wall lights up with cheery posts: "RIP, cuz!" "See you on the other side!" There’s an odd stench to the writings on a dead person’s wall. The casual tone of a Happy Birthday, as if a tombstone is temporary, a plaster cast on a broken bone that will heal. “I worship you, dude.” “What’s up, dude?” You’re dead, dude.   

Like it or Dislike it, Facebook was not built for mourning. Who on this earth is more vital and immortal than a Harvard twentysomething with a billion-dollar idea based on equal parts exclusivity and togetherness? You have to be alive to participate in life as well as on Facebook. When you die, you can’t post. Dead people can’t speak for themselves. They can’t update you about the afterlife:

“It’s nothing like you expect, you guys! Die now, seriously, it’s bananas!”

“I no longer exist. The universe is a void. Meh. Loved you.”

“I shouldn’t have caved into road rage and shot that guy who cut me off. #HellSucks” 

Dying is pretty much the most un-Facebook thing a person can do. Social media is where we transform our activity into a status, a living history. You can take a break from Facebook, but most people come back to the world in the phone. We want to see what we missed. We want to see what that vacationing jerk is up to now. We want to know who died. Who got married. Who ate salmon. You can’t catch up with dead people.

Studies always show that Facebook makes us want to blow our brains out – those people in the computer and their barbecues and their smiles, they don’t need us. Other studies come along, suggesting Facebook also keeps us from blowing our brains out – those people in the computer, they like our pictures, they love us. Odds are, we’re all going to stay on some version of social media for the rest of our lives. And, as long as there are people on Facebook, there will be Deathbook. The internet is just another place you leave when you die. In the meantime, you’re alive! You have a platform and a voice. You’re a newly minted rabbi, a nervous pastor stepping before the congregation. You’re a publicist issuing one statement after another. You’re a spokesperson for your family, a proponent of your brand, your brand as defined by your Likes and Dislikes. Yes, you are special, same as all your friends, the ones you know, the ones you met once for five minutes at a party, the ones you love, the ones you block, the ones you Like, the ones you Dislike, the ones you’ll never see again, the ones who will miss you when you die and the ones who won’t miss you because they blocked you a few years ago, because of your obnoxious post about your #BestDayEver, a day you don’t remember anymore. 

You by Caroline Kepnes is now available in paperback (Simon & Schuster, £3.85)

@CarolineKepnes

Illustration: Shashwat Sahay
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Caroline Kepnes

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