Column: Wiley's Follies
Facebook And Immortality
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 21:03
When a life belongs to everyone, it effectively belongs to no one. By surrendering life’s intimacies to the multitudes, the Facebook generation has rendered itself immortal. The obsessive chronicling of daily life is a curious social development indeed—a task often characterized as trivial and depressing. The Millennials have surrendered themselves to a state of deep isolation, so the story goes. To avoid the grave discomfort of sociability, the masses have retreated to the social network. Perhaps rightfully, older generations scoff at this detachment, and rebuke claims that the social network can foster near perfect connection between relative strangers. This casual gracing of lives—through pictures, interests, and scattered thoughts—has seemingly replaced a more traditional sense of intimacy. When relationships begin and end with a Facebook update, the old world decries this joylessness manner of living.
But what if the old world is following the wrong story? What if the allegedly oppressive task of documenting the mundane is not a work of isolation, but rather a celebration of collectivism? What if there is new world, working of the subconscious, writing a history of itself?
Everyman has challenged the history books. He has surrendered his life to the great forever, placing his words alongside the works of the greatest philosophers. His practice of social networking is nothing more than the fulfillment of an unspoken desire of all serfs, to be recognized and remembered in time as feudal lords. Indeed, more than dying, we fear being forgotten, and forgetfulness, rather than mortality, is the fatal flaw of mankind. This explains why millions have, with great willingness, rendered themselves the corpses of history through acts of war before living a long life of obscurity.
Like soldiers discarding limbs on the battlefield, we cast pieces of ourselves to a sea of faces, so frequently and liberally that upon death, little of our lives will belong strictly to ourselves. Upon dying, life will already unknowingly have been left behind for the world to recover. In effect, we have cheated death. This is never more evident to me than when visiting the Facebook profile of a friend already gone, and nearly everyday, I see people’s kind words written on his wall. Do these people sincerely believe Facebook is an effective means of communicating with the dead? It certainly seems like it, and at times, this conviction is not even one of religion. Social networks have allowed us to communicate with the abstractions of living people, and since these connections have never been direct, it’s logical to believe such communication can, in a legitimate way, exists between living and nonliving people.
Human beings are morbid creatures—we begin mourning long before death, despairing at each fleeting moment of worth. If nothing else, Facebook is a magnificent coping device for this grieving process. It allows us to attach images and thoughts to particular moments in time, and in a way, materialize our memories, so that our lives are never lost.
There’s been a peculiar development in the way Facebook displays our older posts, namely that it doesn’t—not all of them at least. The website has begun quantifying the importance of the happenings in our lives, likely through some algorithm involving the number of “likes” and comments, as well as the relevance each event played in the events to follow. For example, Facebook won’t display the beginning of most friendships, but it will display the beginning of a friendship of two people who went on to date. Just as historians evaluate the gravity of events, discarding or embracing them accordingly, Facebook is making some rather sweeping judgments on our lives. At first, this struck me as disturbing, a clear violation of my belongings. But in time, I came to appreciate that these moments no longer belong to me. They belong to forever, in the way forever views them proper.
The gut reaction to social network phenomena often is an unfortunate one. People are commonly driven either to put an overabundance of themselves on the Internet—including some aspects of life unbecoming to employers—or share very little of themselves, sticking to scant details only vaguely related to their lives. Still others stick to fabrication, leading lives only in pixelated artifices. But if we only were to recognize our place in forever, we’d understand social networking isn’t a call to deception, isolation, fearfulness, or heavy-handed displays. It’s a call to a genuine self, to live in magnificent thoughts, and leak them into the stream of forever. It’s an opportunity to be immortalized, but what is more, it’s the challenge to live a life worth remembering.