Thursday, 11 April 2013

Life & Death & Online Social Etiquette

I have taken time out to consider something rather poignant and relevant that has happened to me recently and one which we should all take a little time consider, the accidental discovery of the death of a friend as discovered first through the social ecosphere, on this occasion via Facebook.

Now I have to say that I have never been a great collector of online friends for a wide range of reasons, including the fact that headcount has been very far from important in my life. It’s the cliché of quality not the quantity don’t you know. However, those who have been fortunate or indeed unfortunate enough to merit befriending have gladly and gleefully shared the ups and downs of their existence. Their trials and tribulations (often much to my chagrin) have been copiously detailed in less than 140 characters including of course the joyous birth of new human beings in the form of literally thousands of online photos of innocuous and inane bald headed babies at the start of their beautiful lives. I have mastered the secret ability using online social etiquette of course to filter out every single photo of every little darling of any friend I ever had so that I can avoid the dubious appreciation of photos of ice-cream laden kids I will never ever meet.

Whether we like it or not, social networks ram the beginning of life down our throats, every single photo of it. I am surprised I haven’t yet encountered an online friend’s photo album entitled “Marie in various stages of Labour” followed by “Claire Gives Birth to Jack (32 Photos in HD Res) – click Like, Share or Comment. The truth is that in accepting and learning to live with any social network we choose to accept social variety, and that really means variety we cannot control and variety of life that is placed right in front of our eyes without asking permission. It just appears – in our news feed. We have learned the online etiquette of handling everything from dull workmates to smug parents which calls for mastering every single online tool enabling us to filter unwanted news until one day these people quietly and accidently slip off our friends list altogether. It may not be fair, but that’s life my friend.

It doesn’t end there. Once we have focused in on our personal, social connection list of more like-minded individuals and those we find entertaining or those we simply wish to stalk, sorry admire, we have to master their day-to-day foibles and whims, many previously never catalogued or unknown to behavioural science. This is of course known as life itself, where every single minutiae of mundane life is shared in excruciating detail due to social network news feeds that never ever, ever stop. We are in a blizzard of news inanity, from Giles going for a run with the obligatory timekeeper mileage report – like I care, almost hardly stopping short of Jeff reporting that he is now visiting the bathroom and what a visit it was. I seriously don’t care and I never ever did!

Consequently we started to invent rules for online behaviour and interaction and then tools when those rules were blatantly ignored and we needed to enforce our own selfish rules instead.

The day that Mark Zuckerberg shouted orders at his team to add the ‘Filter News Feed’ feature was the day he admitted this social thing has very real problems – and the day when we admitted to ourselves that we needed to learn further etiquette. In the beginning it started with too many friends or, just like college, the wrong kind of friends to get our friends-numbers up. Later, much later we learned the rules of how to stay friends with people online that we don’t actually really like very much but ones we need to stay above zero on our friend-counter, stay friends with those that are active socialites or ones that may occasionally fill up the social news feeds with something other than Farmville or photos of a family weekend on an Underwater Basket-Weaving holiday in the Ural Mountains. Who wants to readily admit they only have 5 real friends! We have in short, learned to extend our social network in rather passive ways and live with those we want to live with and we have applied new online social ways of achieving this.

Over the last, relatively short, decade of online social interaction we have also (re)discovered and developed some form of etiquette that covers the many eventualities of online social information leakage through social networks, be it the fact that your ex is now dating a golf coach, has run away with a clown from the circus or has taken off to roam Indonesia and posted a huge amount of heavily doctored positive online PR whilst insisting on remaining ‘connected’.

We have mastered the online social etiquette of be-friending, re-friending, de-friending & un-friending. We have learned when to do it, how to best do it and how to deny we ever did it. We have worked out that the truth is not the best path to enlightenment but instead heavily doctored versions of the truth certainly work best in our online social ecosphere. We have employed subtle online social etiquette (clicking on a button) to rediscover people long lost (I have ‘friended’ you mate), we have rediscovered old flames (I have ‘friended’ you babe) and we have rescued lost relationships (I have ‘friended’ you darling). We have worked out whether it is a good thing to have our family, exes, lovers, wives and husbands on our friends list and also followed new social etiquette to make sure they can or cannot see exactly what we are doing or saying, whilst remaining absolutely guiltless.

So, we have become masters of our own social universes, mini emperors in our own online PR empires and developed an entirely new set of parallel online social rules that purportedly shadow real life (when they seriously, really don’t my friend, but you knew that anyway) which have taken us from the day someone is born all the way through to……...ah yes.

And there you have it you see. What happens when we find out in a gentle casual, finger-click kind of way that someone we have known on and off for months, years, decades, forever, a real person, not just a headline and a profile photo with some creative PR has passed away, died, passed on, actually gone. What do we do then?  They are still there, they still have a profile, I can see them!

Now this isn’t as easy as one may imagine because of the very visible, shared connectedness of social networks. In real life we have made friends with people that other friends don’t know about and for reasons that other friends don’t understand or appreciate, after all, it is none of their business. On a social network, you are part of other people’s friends list, visible lists that are often shared with people you have never met and never will. You are by your very presence in a friend list, you are by its very definition a friend, whether you saw that person yesterday, two decades ago or even if ever. And the other people on the list can see your presence in that person’s life whether you like it or not. This means you have a responsibility to that person whether you like it or not, a social responsibility.

Social networks should not redefine what human friendship is and what it intrinsically means, not unless we have lost complete control of our senses.

So the need for online social etiquette suddenly zoomed into focus, quite urgently in fact. I clicked on my friend’s profile to see how they were as I thought they had been quiet for some time. I was greeted by a mysterious grey, spooky misty banner that could surely have been some kind of central Facebook team creative concept etiquette for bereaved profiles; it frankly gave me the creeps.  My now deceased friend was strangely still there as if they had never departed. I could scroll down and see their last posts in a macabre kind of way. I could see their photo albums of their holidays and their conversations as if they were still there. My friend had a populated friend list and yet some sad announcements that really didn’t feel like they belonged there and some memorial comments that frankly didn’t do the person real justice, but were heart felt all the same. It felt the wrong place to publish these things – it was as if a social network profile was purely for the living, for fun and not for the reality of life and death. I pondered on this and other issues.

The questions started and kept on coming. Is it better to write something on my friend’s wall like an epitaph that others who have no right to read but will read anyway. Should I make some kind of announcement as if they were still there, or is that rather trite? More poignantly but not heartless, were they now classed as  ‘friend’ in the online social sense, did I want a dead friend in my friend list with their visible image looking at me, should I remove them from the friends list now or should I wait for the funeral and then de-friend? Would this be a terrible thing to do? But then if I de-friended a dead friend it is like admitting there is no longer a friendship just because the person has passed on? So should I wait for the administrator of the deceased’s profile to close the profile down so I will be removed silently from this dilemma without having any online guilt and if so how long will that take and what happens if they do not and instead turn the profile into a memorial or shrine, what then? Maybe I could end up over time with a small friends list with more than one dead friend, then what! Would Facebook become like a cemetery where I visited all the now-deceased people I had previously known whilst alive!

Life takes its course from birth all the way through to death, that’s how things are. We are now starting to witness the first phase of entire lives passing through the social network ecosphere from beginning to end. Consequently we must all recognise what this may mean and how we approach it. Are social networks just for the good times and for the living? There are an ever increasing number of memorial pages after all. Perhaps we must start to face up to the fact that whilst death (of others) has always been something inevitable (to others) though many of us choose to pretend doesn’t exist (for now), or can be avoided (for now), or stepped round or be just plain ignored until it is pushed into our faces, social networks have the ability to make death something rather more visible than we may have previously learned to deal with.

It is for this reason that if we truly wish to embrace life in an online social world, we must also learn to embrace the inevitability of death that follows life with the appropriate online etiquette and dignity that retains our humanity and our compassion and is not reduced to the click of a finger. After all, we are all worth more than our profile page, aren’t we?

For those that wonder, my friend remains on my friend list.

Copyright Genius! by Morgan & Wolfe. All Rights Reserved 2013

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