Nicholas Hune-Brown: How to die on Facebook

Nicholas Hune-Brown: How to die on Facebook

When you’re dead, your Facebook page becomes a permanent digital gravestone, and your family and friends (and quite possibly some strangers) will indulge in a free-for-all of trivializing hagiography. The perils of online legacies

How to Die on Facebook
How to Die on Facebook

It was 11 in the morning on a warm Friday in September when a 16-year-old boy named Akash Wadhwa plunged from the Mavis Road overpass onto the busy 401. Shortly afterward, Peel police found the slain body of his classmate Kiranjit Nijjar in a nearby ravine.

At Mississauga Secondary School, what had begun as a series of horrific rumours solidified, piece by piece, into a single, devastating murder-suicide story. According to reports, Wadhwa, a depressed and troubled Grade 12 student, had strangled his 17-year-old friend Nijjar and then jumped onto the highway. Before he leapt, Wadhwa had left a last message on Facebook: “SUICIDE/MURDER NOTE: Three things I learned in life. What goes around comes around. KARMA is the biggest bitch. You should NEVER CHANGE on people who love and care for you… My one main reason I did this is that life let me down way too much.”

Shocked classmates reacted to the news the same way we all react to a world-shaking event in 2011—by going online. Wadhwa’s friends started a Facebook memorial page, “RIP Akash Wadhwa,” to mourn the person they had known and prevent him from being remembered solely for his final actions. The first post read: “You will be missed by all. Doesn’t matter if you were suspected of anything. At the end of the day you were a friend, a son and a person that has touched all.” Commenters decried the group for celebrating a murderer. Why would anyone want a killer to “rest in peace”? How would Nijjar’s parents feel about a page memorializing the person who had taken their daughter’s life? Every new post produced dozens of messages arguing the merits of a 16-year-old’s actions in the brutal style familiar to anyone who reads Internet comment sections, where even the most trivial article can provoke reams of ugly accusations and name-calling. “Let’s hope this murderer rots in hell,” read a typical post. “Shut the fuck up” became the most common response.

Soon, new Facebook pages began to pop up. A second, equally contentious “RIP Akash Wadhwa” memorial page appeared that same day (confusingly, Facebook allows multiple pages with the same name). The moderator of a page in tribute to both students, “RIP Akash Wadhwa and Kiranjit Nijjar,” removed a picture of Wadhwa after it was inundated with vitriol. In response to the memorials, someone started an “Akash Wadhwa, celebrated murderer?” page dedicated to discussing the “bizarre phenomenon of public vigils for those who murder.” The “Justice for Kiranjit Nijjar” page posted an online poll soliciting opinions as the case unfolded: “Do you think Akash killed Kiran?”

In the private-public hybrid world of online social networks, the deaths of two teenagers had become fodder for debate. As strangers who had never known the students began jumping into the argument, Facebook tribute pages turned into a new, incendiary kind of virtual memorial.

Just as the Internet has changed every facet of how we live, so it is changing the way we die. Death is increasingly something you find out about on your laptop or smart phone. Unless the deceased is particularly close, you’re likely to learn of a friend’s death the same way you find out about her birthday or engagement—as a blip on your Facebook news feed, sandwiched between party photos and cute animal videos.

In just a few short years, the Facebook memorial page has become an accepted rite of mourning, appropriate for both public figures like Jack Layton and private citizens like Kiranjit Nijjar. When someone dies, his or her online profile page also undergoes an immediate transformation. Last year, when a friend of a friend of mine died, her Facebook page instantly changed from the log of a living person’s thoughts and feelings and trivial interests into a digital shrine. Her final status update, which just happened to be a message of hope and optimism, took on new significance. The page became a place where friends could visit months and even a year later to look at pictures, commiserate with one another and leave messages for the deceased and for her friends and family.

How to Die on Facebook
How to Die on Facebook

Until four years ago, Facebook’s official policy was to erase the profiles of dead users. After the massacre of 32 students at Virginia Tech, however, relatives of the victims found themselves returning again and again to Facebook to congregate and mourn. Today, Facebook will “memorialize” a loved one’s profile page, removing certain features and, upon request, locking the page to new friends, turning the profile into a kind of permanent digital gravestone. Friends can continue to post comments and tag photographs well after the person has died.

Before Facebook, you paid your respects to the dead by attending a funeral, shaking the hands of the deceased’s relatives and keeping what you truly thought about him or her bottled up. On Facebook, polite mourning is replaced by a free-for-all of uninhibited commentary. Worse, the comments are at once personal and public; never before has it been so easy to say something directly to another person, but within plain view of thousands.

When researchers from Oklahoma State University studied mourning on social networks, they were surprised by the number of comments left by people who had never met the deceased. As the story of Wadhwa and Nijjar unfolded, the moderator of the “Justice for Kiranjit Nijjar” page—who described herself as a 16-year-old who had never heard of Nijjar before her death—kept a running commentary, speaking of the deceased as if she were a close personal friend. “Please treat others the way you want to be treated,” she wrote in response to comments critical of Wadhwa. Then, displaying a powerful psychic connection to the girl she’d never met, she added, “That is what Kiran would say if she were alive today.”

In a 2010 paper published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, academics analyzed the social media profiles of the dead, dividing the types of messages into various groups. Unsurprisingly, most messages were short notes that said things like “RIP” or “I miss you”—the digital equivalent of leaving flowers at a grave or wearing a Victorian black arm band, a token gesture that symbolically and publicly marks you as someone in mourning. Other messages were what the researchers described as attempts to eulogize the deceased. People posted anecdotes from their friend’s life, casting themselves in central roles—an attempt to claim a kind of ownership over the dead person’s experiences. Or they emphasized certain values the friend had in the same way that, after the death of Steve Jobs, users flooded Facebook and Twitter with updates summing up the man’s life in the hollow words of a marketing campaign: “Think different.”

These impulses aren’t new; part of grieving is making sense of a life, creating a coherent biography of the deceased that you can fit into your own story. In the past, however, the public act of telling someone’s life story was left to eulogists and newspaper obituary writers. In the same way that the Internet has democratized opinion journalism and encyclopedia authorship, it has opened obituary writing up to the masses. And unlike traditional mourning rites such as funerals and memorial services, Facebook memorials offer no position of privilege to family members or close friends. Everyone can chime in.

When Akash Wadhwa’s friends began his Facebook memorial page, they were attempting to tell one side of his story. “Akash didn’t have a good start in life and it’s not his fault that no one gave him the help he desperately needed,” someone wrote. When commenters disagreed with this kind of interpretation, the page soon became a battleground, with comment wars raging, bolstered by the number of “likes” each argument received, until the multitude of voices claiming authority on the subject had built to an overwhelming roar.

One commenter tried to quell the criticism. “Being dead, Akash himself is incapable of having an opinion of this memorial page,” he wrote. “This page is more for the people who were upset by his death to remember him.” The page wasn’t about celebrating a murderer. It wasn’t even really for Wadhwa, just as a eulogy is not actually for the dead person, but for the people left behind.

Perhaps that’s the strangest thing about the way we deal with death online. Facebook is the place where, according to the company, we “tell our story.” It’s a kind of autobiography written in real time, where we get to select what we show the world. When we die on Facebook, we lose control of that narrative, and those who survive us have the final word.