Sunday, May 01, 2016

I Lost A Stranger Today

For years now, I've been getting updates from someone on Facebook. Little, joyous posts about a person, her offspring with prodigious talent with music and dancing, pictures of places they'd been to, and even they'd attended. The person started following me roughly five years ago. Her profile listed her as a self-employed editor, so I made the assumption that she was a friend of a friend, or perhaps someone who enjoyed horror, and therefore took pleasure in seeing the new ways I managed to mangle words in my posts.

As the years went by, I saw her show off fashion, art, some brief downturns in health, her children's amazing knack for both music and dance, authors she had helped, and pictures of many wonderful social gatherings. Just last week, she had gotten on a kick of posting pre-Raphaellite art.

Today, my feed is filled with people sharing wonderful memories on her timeline. At first, I thought it was one of those annoying chain posts along the lines of "list the best memories you have of spending time with me," or something of that ilk that people post now and again when they feel a lack of connection to other people in this digital world - especially if they've spent a good portion of their lives in a world which did not have cat macros and where people enjoyed physical media.

I checked and scrolled and referenced other stranger's timelines, and this was no such meme. Quite factually and suddenly, this person died.

In real life.


For realsies.


Further searching revealed there was no reason for me to know this person. She had no standing friendships with other authors or editors on my lists of friends. No tertiary connections. If her profile was a bot (and these thoughts always cross my mind, because I want to believe) it was very convincing. I even contemplated this being a very creative ARG (again, because I want to believe). It's not like a character death in a novel, or even some expanded-universe non-canonical story about demise of an on-screen extra.


This was real. The outpouring is real, and I'm watching it unfold as I type this. I find myself thinking, "Well, what about the children? They're not quite old enough for college, and there weren't relatives present in the timeline, so what happens now?"

Why am I thinking about a stranger's world? Why am I spending time on this? I feel like I've crashed a wake. An indelicate stranger. Weird, voyeuristic, vicarious (wait for it) existentialism. It makes absolutely no sense.

Facebook says she's alive. I'm not certain social media curates the bigger real-world inevitabilities. Friends do. Family members do. But no one packages up these profiles and delivers them to the "virtual estate of." There are services which take care of these digital presences, but one has to be enrolled well in advance. There are groups working on developing AI systems to keep our online personalities "alive" and functioning long after we are gone. However, I don't think there are archivists - either working for these larger networks or independently - cataloging these lives.

I'm not certain where I'm going with this.

When people go away from us in the real world, there is a notification. Those closest are usually the first to know. Word of mouth informs the rest. Obituaries. Notifications of estate sales. Funerary services. Eventually, the IRS, creditors, utility companies, and others are informed, so services and bills can stop.

This doesn't happen in this virtual world. Facebook and Twitter do not pin a post at the top of the person's page saying "In fond memory of..." or even a dispassionate "Currently deceased pending user verification."

Maybe we need a better method for documenting our virtual lives, or at least archiving them. This makes for a large library of aliases, pictures of food, cat videos, and eve actual content. Perhaps we need a repository with better depth and linking than The Wayback Machine.

We're left hunting ghosts and solving mysteries from our screens. We become unwitting biographers. Raconteurs.

I'm not certain of the social decorum of a "like" or "retweet" to act as a bobber in the timestream. I'm sure I am not the first person to experience this. I certainly won't be the last. Hell, there may even be a German word with for the increasing familiarity with dissociation. I don't think technology is alienating us from our humanity; I just think it's something we have to come to terms with, like everything else, including the punctuation at the end of our personal stories.

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