Monday, April 4, 2011

Death and Social Media

I learned of Elizabeth Taylor's death on Twitter, Michael Jackson's and Patrick Swayze's deaths too. Pixelized news spreads quickly. With the push of a button the world is informed, or misinformed. How many times has Twitter tried to kill off Gordon Lightfoot, Jackie Chan and Neil Diamond already?

But celebrity deaths, like their lives are not a good measure of reality. How are we, the regular folks, supposed to deal with the death of a friend or loved one and social media?

I will give you three examples to think about. The first is a joke I made at Elizabeth Taylor's expense. Upon learning of her death, a few weeks ago, I Tweeted and Facebooked this joke; Elizabeth Taylor dies, announces her engagement to Ernest Hemingway. Funny, I thought, but it created a bit of a buzz on Facebook. One of my good friends, a huge Liz Taylor fan took a bit of an offense to my joke. Seems it was too soon. I was being disrespectful to the dead. Fair enough, I conceded. My joke, I felt, had little to do with Elizabeth Taylor the person and more to do with Elizabeth Taylor the tabloid celebrity. If I offended anyone, well that was not my intention. I was looking for giggles. You can't win them all. The lesson, I guess, is that there is a joke free buffer around a celebrity's death... the amount of time this buffer lasts, remains a mystery. Maybe Gilbert Gottfried knows...???

My second example was my first encounter with death and social media. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, whose name I won't mention, committed suicide. I found out of his death via Facebook. The details of his death, which like his name, I will not mention, were not shared on Facebook, thankfully. The news of his death, however, spread quickly. His Facebook Wall became a cyber-memorial. Friends from all over left messages of love and sympathy. His account still exists, every now and then someone writes on his Wall still. Is this healthy? This unfortunate fella was not a dear friend of mine, but he was a friend, I was saddened, but not devastated by the news of his death. But what of his closer friends and relatives?  Is it healthy to have a constant reminder of their dead loved one only a few clicks away?

My third example was the inspiration for this post. I lost my dear friend Andre on Saturday night. He finally lost the battle with his wonky heart. Andre was the bravest guy I have ever met. His love for life was something we should all aspire to. I'll miss him. That said, this is not an obituary piece. I'd hate to be burdened with that job... I haven't the words. Anyway, back on topic. I found out about Andre's death on Sunday morning. I had slept in, it was probably 10am before I was up and about and checking emails. It being so late in the morning, news of Andre's death had already gone viral. There was nothing I could do to stop the news, I couldn't tell the universe to quiet down in order that Andre's loved one's had the time to process this horrible news. So instead, I added my own laments. As someone whom sorts themselves out via the written word, it helped. As to whether I did a disservice to Andre's legacy, by joining the ever-growing viral bemoan, I don't know? I believe in my heart that Andre would want his friends and family to sort their grief out however they can. He was a avid social media user, he'd have joined the mob (some of us held out hope that he would. It was that close to April 1st). 

So, should there be rules for social media and death? Would the rules be  different according to celebrity, cause of death, or how close a person was to the person who had passed away? Is it always bad form to crack jokes about the newly deceased? And what of the profiles of these dead people? Are they interactive memorials, pixelated grave sites, a place web surfers can go to remember times past? Or should the profiles of dead people be deleted? Is the chance of bumping into the profile of a dead friend, loved one, or family member potentially too distressing? Does it depend on the feelings of the living? Surly the dead have no worries about whether their Twitter or Facebook profiles live on past their death. Heck, think of it as a digital legacy, a pixelated image of a life that was. 

Maybe this post is nothing more than a blogger dealing with their own misgivings about death. I dunno? What I do know is that social media has a way of making you confront death instantaneously and rehash death whenever one might stumble upon the thumbnail, or profile of a dead person. Is this healthy? Was it better the old way, where if you weren't in close contact with a deceased person, or their loved ones, it could take a long time before learning of their death? Again, I dunno? I will probably never know. We each grieve and deal with the metaphysical reality of death differently. 

God speed Andre and I am sorry for the gratuitous joke Mrs Taylor. How about the two of you raise the spirits of my unnamed buddy in the afterlife?  I hope the three of you enjoy the view. Be excellent to each other. We miss you. 


  1. cheers joe...something to think about ...obce again you've inspired thought...

  2. Thank you Jen and Brian. I don't tend to like to think about death, but when one is confronted with it, it's probably best they try and sort themselves out. :)

  3. Wow.
    Love this.
    That's all I got.

  4. Well written, Joe...I worked with Andre for four and a half years. He was kind to me after my Stepdad died at Christmas time in '08. He was my Secret Santa and he and Stacey concocted this whole 80's themed gift for me, complete with a Jem and the Holograms Tshirt...He gave me amazing advice at this time last year when I went to Montreal for my own heart surgery. He Facebooked me a message on the morning of my surgery, it said, "Welcome to the Zipper Club." (a joke between people who have had heart surgery.) My husband and I last saw him a month or two ago, he did not look as well as he had before but, he was so positive and upbeat. He will be missed by so many...

  5. Miranda, thanks. The idea for this post kept me up last night.

    And Sammy, I first met Andre in high school. We were good buddies for the year or so that we were in the same school. When I moved to Fredericton about 4 years ago, and learned that Andre also lived here I quickly looked him up. Time hadn't changed a thing.He just had that something special. I feel blessed to have had him in my life.

  6. This was fantastic and smart, Andre would have lvoed it. He also would have loved that you described his death as "going viral". Altho there are obvious exceptions (and perhaps jokes shared in poor taste, ahem!)...communication and connection between people is never a bad bad, even if it is 140-characters at a time.

    See you Saturday.

  7. Thanks Nat. Seems that you and I were both compelled to blog by Andre's death. He is a worthy muse. Saturday is gonna be bittersweet, Dre's memorial and then Ross Neilson's big show at the Playhouse. Ye gads. See you then :)