Internet Immortality: Poke Me When I'm Dead, An Essay
In 2005, I took to my LiveJournal to post an impassioned entry about illegal immigration. I called the onerous, often painful experience “SO UNFAIR,” and went on and on about the injustice of what was, over a decade ago, as much of a hot button issue as it is today. Unfortunately, the conclusion I reached had nothing to do with the governmental failure of our immigration process—I apparently found it unfair to immigrate illegally because it was “JUST like cutting in line!”
It’s an extremely gross perspective, and doesn’t align at all with the ideas I at least thought I had back then, let alone now. When I discovered the entry it occurred to me that it might be a good call to delete my LiveJournal altogether, but of course I couldn’t remember my login or password, and since I naturally registered the profile with an old Yahoo! email address, I have no way of retrieving that information either. So, there it remains for all eternity, a monument to two traits of my 15-year-old self that are truly odious when combined—confidence and ignorance.
I began an entry from 2004 with, “So I’ve already established that god isn’t real...” What a lofty accomplishment for a fourteen-year-old! Who knew I had debunked the foundation for organized religion at the same time I was wearing a No Doubt hoodie to school every day, and frequently stealing pins from the plastic bins on the counter at Hot Topic? My LiveJournal was updated on a near daily basis, with detailed entries lamenting such unimaginable horrors as not being given a ride to the mall by my mom “who doesn’t even care about me,” and kids who call themselves emo kids but “everyone has emotions so what does that even MEAN!!”
I had a vague sense that once something was posted on the Internet it no longer belonged just to me, but no real concept of the implications of that being the case. I suspect that if I knew then that the impassioned, detailed pleas for mall transportation would be discoverable online over a decade after they were posted, I would have thought something like, “GOOD!!!! She should have just taken me!!”
When almost everyone began exhaustively chronicling their lives online, posting pictures of their dog or the lasagna they were going to eat for dinner—or if they were really clever their dog sitting next to the lasagna like it was the dog’s dinner—there was a general sense that since everyone was doing it, it was alright.
While that might arguably still be the case when it comes to sharing truly innocuous images or information, around that same time people without the predisposition to think about consequences started to get in trouble for their less than dog-with-lasagna-like posts. It’s one thing to see a photo of your boss’ Pomeranian; it’s another thing entirely to read a paragraphs-long status update about how much she loves Alex Jones for finally revealing the truth about Sandy Hook.
The short-term consequences of sharing that kind of crazy with the world sometimes means the loss of a job or opportunity, and sometimes nothing at all, but whether or not there are any real long-term consequences is yet to be seen. What is definitely known is that when you post something on the Internet, you’re writing in ink, not pencil. No matter what I do, my awful LiveJournal will exist and be available to anyone with the tools and will to see it. Even if I could remember my login info, deleting the entry would not actually erase it— it would just be harder to find.
The permanence of posting on the Internet becomes particularly upsetting when considering the exhaustive documentation many parents subject their children to. Often beginning as early as the first sonogram, parents freely post pictures and videos of childhood milestones (Aidan’s first haircut! Madison’s first trip to Disneyland!) on their social media accounts, as if to not do so would be an unfair withholding of these moments from their audience of FriendsTM who just can’t wait to smash that “like” button.
While that might seem innocent enough, the biggest difference between sharing a physical photo album or video with friends and family and doing so on a social media platform is that, when you agree to the terms of service for said platform, you’re also agreeing that any content you post belongs to them.
That video of sweet, innocent little Madison wailing and streaming snot as some sweaty teenager in a Mickey Mouse costume attempts to get her to smile from behind giant dead cartoon eyes is not just yours: it belongs to the Internet forever as soon as you post it. There are people walking around right now whose lives have been publicly shared since they were in utero, and who soon enough will be the same age I was when I had already decided upon the impossibility of a single divine creator.
Fast-forward to the other end of the life-spectrum, and things on social media get even weirder. There are a few people I know who have died and now have memorialized Facebook pages. The pages are perfect for anyone who would love to lay flowers at a grave but just can’t find the time, and who really want to let the dead person’s Facebook friends (who are presumably not dead) know that they are thinking about the deceased #always. As with fetuses and infants, a dead person has no say in whether or not their Facebook page becomes a crystallized monument to their life.
The idea of an interactive grave sounds fun in a sci-fi kind of way, and it certainly sucks the maudlin nature of a cemetery out of the equation, but there is something about a post on a dead person’s profile appearing in the same newsfeed as a Tasty video of bacon stuffed cinnamon roll French toast that just doesn’t quite gel.
The memorialized accounts tend to get posted on most when it’s the deceased’s birthday, which is also when they likely got the most traffic while alive. Instead of brief platitudes though, the dead often “receive” long messages detailing the poster’s particular stage of grief, and, if my own experience is any indication, an exaggerated picture of the closeness of their relationship to the dead person. One that the dead person can’t possibly refute being that they’re, you know, no longer alive.
It’s a bit difficult to imagine the deceased being annoyed at how their Facebook is being used, but it’s easy to imagine a living person being annoyed by the self-aggrandizing nature of a long-winded post dedicated to a person who can’t read it because they can’t read anything because they are dead.
The more that social media is integrated into our daily life, the more dangerous people’s willingness, and sometimes-apparent compulsion, to share becomes. While the glut of information posted does act as somewhat of a smokescreen, if not a full-fledged shield, there is every reason to believe that as the amount of information grows so will the abilities of those looking to find it. Many dedicate themselves fully to their legacy, which is to say they live their lives focused on how they will be remembered after they die. No matter what I accomplish in my life, anyone who really wants to dig will be able to unearth all kinds of unfortunate musings I shared as a teenager—and those are just the things I chose to make public.
The really bad stuff, the browser histories and catalogs of search engine results, are all there too, waiting to be discovered by whoever creates the tool first. When that inevitable future comes, all I can hope is that the only way “I’ll” be hearing about it is on my memorialized Facebook. “Missing u SO much this year on ur birthday,” a high school acquaintance might write someday, “and no matter what anyone thinks, I know u would only ever look up ‘choke me daddy’ vids as jokes because u were so funny it’s part of what I miss about u EVERY DAY!!!” Fingers crossed.
Written by Michael Podell