Hello, Cyborgology…it’s been a while. I’ve missed you, but I haven’t quite known what to say. Which is weird, right? Strangely enough, I’ve got half a dozen half-finished posts on my computer—twenty-thousand someodd words of awkward silence waiting to be wrapped up and brought into the world.
Writer’s block happens to the best of us, or so I’m told. What’s been strange for me is looking back and realizing that the last thing I posted was my piece from the beginning of #ir14, the 14th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers. I say “strange” because I had an amazing experience at #ir14, and left it feeling so excited about my field and my work and what I imagine to be possible. And yet, in the two months since, something’s been off. I’ve managed to submit to a couple of important abstracts, and I continued sitting in on a really cool seminar, and I’ve plunged into the work of helping to organize this year’s Theorizing the Web (a conference about which I’m passionate, to say the least). But my words went somewhere, have been gone.
I realized recently, however, that it’s not about some kind of post-#ir14 crash. It’s actually about what happened after.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not great about keeping up with all of my digital communication media (though I am ever-aspiring to do better). As I’ve at least insinuated previously, Facebook is pretty low on my personal Prioritized List of Digital Communication Media. It’s almost a fluke, then, that—back in Cambridge, in the week following #ir14—I happened to check Facebook, and to see a brand new post at the top of my feed that ended up being pretty important.
The post was from an old friend of mine (we’ll call him John), someone I hadn’t seen in probably a decade and with whom I’d only recently gotten back in touch. John was from one of the last batches of friends I made in the pre-“Web 2.0” era, before “social media” had become a widespread thing, before people moved or changed jobs and maintained at least basic “I know where to find you and have a general sense of what you’re up to” connections by default, rather than through deliberate effort. How we came to be back in touch via Facebook is a long and convoluted story, but it ends with rumors of his demise being greatly exaggerated and with me being greatly relieved, and happy, to see that he was alive and doing quite well.
John was posting, however, to ask if anyone had details about a memorial for another friend of ours, someone with whom he’d been quite close during the time that I’d known them both—someone with whom I too had been close, in a weird way, for a time. My first thought was no, it can’t be true; my first gut sense was that it probably was true. I tried to convince myself that, well, maybe this was like when the Cambridge grapevine thought John was dead; John would later say he’d thought the same thing. But I did the thing that one does in 2013 when one hears that perhaps someone has died, which is Google Compulsively. Inside of ten minutes, I was almost certain that our friend’s death was real, neither a misunderstanding nor a misguided joke. One person posting on the Internet about a death could be wrong; two people posting on the Internet about a death could be a prank. A whole community posting about a death is more real than an obituary.
I then did the thing that one does (or at least, that I do) in 2013, when one is alone in one’s apartment and hears that someone has definitely died, which is pour grief into one’s (private) personal Twitter account. It turns out there’s a big difference between when someone important drifts out of your life and when they actually, permanently, biologically die. It turns out that even when you’re used to not seeing someone around anymore, when you’re long-accustomed to knowing them only through second- or third-hand stories, that even knowing there will be no more stories rips you open, creates brand new wounds all its own.
At the same time, I found so many stories in my online searching—old stories, but stories that were new to me. Way back when, in one of the last extended conversations we had so very long ago, my friend had told me about how he’d just then gotten his first email address—and only reluctantly, only because others had made him, only because he was going so far away. He was proud of himself for having held out as long as he did—but in the intervening years, he’d apparently changed his mind about digital communication media. He’d found Twitter, and wow had he been on Twitter. He was on a podcast, one that people listen to, one that did a long tribute to him after he died. I sat at my desk and I listened to that tribute and I laughed, and cried, and cried and cried. His voice sounded the same. He was, in many ways, the way I remembered him; he also said a lot of the same things about Twitter and community that I say about Twitter and community, which I never would have imagined becoming true back in 2002. He told stories I hadn’t heard before, and stories that hadn’t happened then. And the community he left behind told stories, too.
There was so much about that whole experience that I wanted to write about, that I wanted to try to make sense of in a “social media theorist” sort of way. There was how I found out about his death, and how I convinced myself that his death was real; there was how I began to process my grief through long-form Twitter posting, and how digital media had given me a posthumous glimpse of the person he’d become. There was the double context-collapse of his informal memorial: I went with John, a close friend of theirs, and a couple of other people, all of whom had first known my deceased friend from far longer ago than I had; then, at the memorial, we met people our friend had been friends with in the present, many of whom he’d gotten to know through Twitter. One of his present-day close friends even Skyped in to the memorial for a toast. I imagine memorials and funerals are always context-collapsey, that it’s always strange to hear new friends use a new name to toast to someone you’ve loved—but for the friends I was with, the mediation difference seemed to sharpen the pain. The person being talked about was not, in all respects, the person they had known years ago; while part of this was undoubtedly due to time and to context, what my friends kept coming back to was the how of their knowing: that they had gotten to know him exclusively in person[i].
And yet, I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to write about this. Before social media, and especially before I began to study social media in earnest, I would have named my deceased friend—because I believe it is important to honor the dead, and because my friend had such a profound impact on my life (one that I would only realize fully years later, and one which I’m certain he never realized himself). At the same time, I’m too much a social media theorist to write about death in the way that I would as an ordinary person. Social media run on attention economies. To an extent, we all know that; especially as someone who also studies quantification, I can’t un-know that. And so I can’t shake the feeling that, here in 2013, it would be dishonorable to name my friend, to link to his tribute podcast, or even to point to the charitable organization his girlfriend and friends suggested for donations. To link might be to bring more attention to a person who was worth knowing and to a cause that is worth supporting, but to do so could also divert preexisting attention from those things to this blog, to this post, to me. Regardless of my intentions, it would feel opportunistic.
It feels as though there is a certain degree of Very Close that one should be with someone before one steps anywhere near the limelight of their passing, and while I don’t know where the shadows stop and the light begins, I am certain that in that attention is not my place. In a way, new attention is like thermal energy: It flows from where there is more of it to where there is less of it. Were I quite a bit more well known than my friend, then linking would seem appropriate (even though we had long been out of contact): Here, pay attention. Here, help. In 2013, donations of social capital can be made in memoriam, too. Under the circumstances, however, I’ve been at an awkward loss—and unlike when I don’t know whether to send flowers or what to wear to a funeral, I can’t call my mom up to ask about this one. I don’t think any of us know yet. And the questions aren’t going away.
I’m (finally) writing about this, I think, because it’s happening again. A few hours after my post-holiday flight landed in Boston, I sat down at my desk and just happened to catch a Gchat message from a close friend back in the Bay Area (where I lived for the first four-and-a-half years of grad school). “I’m sorry to tell you this through such an impersonal medium,” she said, meaning not face-to-face. “But I wanted to let you know before you found out through another, even more impersonal medium.” She was telling me that a mutual friend of ours, one of only a handful of people I saw socially during the last months before I moved back to Cambridge, had taken his life sometime that morning.
I have been learning these last few months what it is to express grief-in-the-moment through text. A decade ago, my distant third-person memory of that moment might have been a strange sound that came out of my mouth; now, it is the sound and feeling of my fingers pounding out “WHAT?” and “FUCK” and “no no no no no no no” all in quick succession, <send> as punctuation. And the questions, and their answers. And then even though I knew it must be true if this particular friend said it was true, I checked the Internet to see if it was true. And it was true.
I stayed on Gchat with my friend for a while. I cried. I texted with two people close to me, one of them another friend of the deceased. I poured grief into my (private) personal Twitter account—but this time I did so in context, because half the people that account follows had just lost the same friend. I watched news of his death spread through my stream, watched the shock and anger and sadness and anguish each come rolling as surging waves of words. I fail at keeping up regularly with my social media accounts, and especially at keeping up with my personal Twitter account, so I had to go back and read the last few months of my friend’s partner’s timeline. And then my friend’s timeline. And then, after that, I had a somewhat different picture than I’d gotten over the last 11 months of sporadic when-I-have-time Twitter-checking. And then I realized that the reason he no longer responded when I responded to his tweets was because he had no idea I was talking to him, because he’d stopped following that (private) account[ii].
And then I really, really regretted not sending out an actual text message or email when I visited SF last October, because he and his partner were high on the list of people I’d wanted to see—and I didn’t get to see them. The thing was that I’d felt awkward: I’d moved far away, and had been out of touch but for the occasional @-response or “Like.” Because I’m just Like That, I wasn’t sure if most of my Bay Area friends would want to see me anyway. Yet as I tweeted about how kind my friend and his partner had both always been to me, how they had made me feel welcome and safe at a time and in a place where I rarely felt either (and how much that had meant to me), I suddenly realized how stupid I’d been in not getting in contact with either of them directly when I was in town. And I went back to reading my Twitter stream, where everyone else who’d missed a chance to spend time with him was feeling some version of the same thing. For once it was really hard not to be in the Bay Area, as so many of his other friends gathered to mourn him together, in person. At the same time, being able to gather in the nebulous, intangible living room that is Twitter has been invaluable to me. As I quipped wryly via text yesterday, “If there were gold stars for staring at the wall, petting the cat, and being caught up on Grief Twitter, I’d be downright spangled.”
It’s been a few days now, and my media theorist self is starting to murmur observations. I’m dimly fascinated by the way Twitter has come to figure not just in how I experience some of my communities and personal connections, but how I process my very experiences themselves. I’m fascinated by the unspoken social norms: how none of us named my friend at first (even though many of us have private accounts), and how carefully I weighed saying anything publicly (and did so only after other friends began to do so). I’m remembering that odd moment Friday night when I thought, “Wait, am I doing it wrong?” My initial response was to speak (unidentifiably) of my friend, of his kindness and generosity toward me, and of my shock and sadness that he had died. A large portion of the affected people I follow on that account, however, were speaking in a generalized way to a/the (?) community, messages like, “Hugs to you all.” I wondered if I’d violated a separate social protocol, one of which I hadn’t been aware; I wondered what boundaries the speakers might imagine for the communities they addressed, and whether those boundaries included me or not, whether I was supposed to adopt those norms in the first place. I thought again, too, about a sort of unspoken hierarchy of communication media: While a number of us convened in overlapping, Tweeted parlors, the two members of my inner circle who experienced the same loss got in touch with me though other means (SMS and Gchat), even though we were also talking to each other on Twitter. Even locked-down Personal Twitter has its “front stage” and “back stage.”
Somewhere in the background of my head, I’m wishing now that I’d been to more (any) of the panels at #ir14 on death and grief. I’m sure most of my observations aren’t new, and far more importantly, I wish I had any external sense of what the etiquette norms for Grieving in the Digital Age might be. I know that there are no hard and fast answers, no fail-safe rules; I know that the “rules” will continue to evolve, even on a case-by-case basis. Just over the last four days, I’ve watched a series of stages wash through my personal Twitter stream: Generalized community support and/or declarations of disbelief; Stating that someone has died; Stating who has died, and how; Speaking about my friend, and determining times/places for collective, in-person grieving; Speaking about being at these events, individual requests for assistance, and some affected friends beginning to tweet about other topics; Beginning to organize collective memorial projects and collective support for his family; Beginning to speak publicly—and with new language—about my friend, his life, and his passing.
I still don’t know what to do about attention economies and naming the dead. On the one hand, some of our friends have pulled together to collect donations of both time and funds to help my friend’s partner and infant daughter get through the next few weeks (and in 18 years, college); on the other hand, what belongs front and center is my friend and the family he left behind, not my tangential struggle with what to do in response and what it all means. I’ve ended up helping to collect photos and videos of my friend for his daughter to have as she grows up, because that’s something I can do from 3,000 miles away—and yet, I’m not sure if it’s my place even to do that. I don’t know what the right thing to do is, though I’ll tell you that you can find a link to that website and a link to submit photos of him in my recent (main, public account) tweets (which, since I’ve been quiet lately, will be an unusually straightforward process).
I don’t know what to do, and there is little comfort in knowing that this will be far from my—or anyone’s— last chance to figure it out.
Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter twice, primarily as @weboesel.
[i] What do you know: It turns out there are actually are contexts in which I have absolutely no desire to start arguing with people about digital dualism. As Sarah Wanenchak in particular has written, sometimes feelings are digital dualist—and that’s just how it is; being based (in part) on a false ideological premise doesn’t make feelings themselves any less real. I believe it is possible to get to know someone closely through digital media, but I also very much understand what my friends were experiencing that afternoon.
[ii] I don’t blame my friend in the least for unfollowing that account; it’s a lot of navel-gazing, and I’m kind of amazed that anyone does follow it.