News

The Path to Public Service at SEAS

News

Should Supreme Court Justices Have Term Limits? That ‘Would Be Fine,’ Breyer Says at Harvard IOP Forum

News

Harvard Right to Life Hosts Anti-Abortion Event With Students For Life President

News

Harvard Researchers Debunk Popular Sleep Myths in New Study

News

Journalists Discuss Trump’s Effect on the GOP at Harvard IOP Forum

Columns

A Death on Facebook

How social media portrays mortality

By Sam Danello

Two Saturdays ago, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through Nepal, resulting in widespread damage to infrastructure, irreparable harm to historical sites, and, most tragically, the deaths of thousands and thousands of human beings.

Such an event should inspire mourning and contemplation—sorrow for the people who lost their lives and gratitude for the lives that we still have.

Instead, in the aftermath of the tremors, a different sort of behavior rose up from the rubble. News outlets ran reports of individuals—some tourists and some Nepalese citizens—stopping in front of destroyed buildings for quick selfies.

Here was one sort of earthquake response: Survey the tragic scene, take a smiling photo, and then skip off in the opposite direction.

If social media glorifies life—capturing our most intimate moments and recording our funniest jokes—then it does the opposite for death.

In Nepal, the pressure of social media gave users an incentive to turn a deep and wide human tragedy into a shallow snapshot.

To a certain degree, you can blame the photographers. A tactful person should have enough respect to avoid behavior that reduces a death into a tagged detail.

Yet a larger, and more disconcerting, criticism of the selfie-behavior that emerged out of the Nepal earthquake has to do with the nature of social media itself.

By displaying nothing more than instances of frivolity, by encouraging users to disguise themselves inside a sunny-beach persona, social media prevents the acknowledgement of deeper emotions, such as grief.

Against a background of party photos and emojis, mortality loses all of its defining gravitas. The deceased become abject and even absurd—they simply can’t coexist with this sepia-tinted world in which every comment is an inside joke.

Put it this way: There is nothing more unsettling than the Facebook profile of a dead teenager.

I think the uneasy feeling derives from the lightheartedness of the content that dominates any social media platform. There are airy “lol” comments; there are witty photo captions.

There is rarely, if ever, a reminder that this person—this very same smiling person—is fragile enough to die.

How can you reconcile social media’s giddy artificiality with death’s stone-cold reality? How can you connect a corpse to a profile picture?

I’d like to provide an answer, but I sense these questions are rhetorical—Facebook simply lacks the tools to chronicle death.

That’s why it feels slightly invasive to log onto the profile of a dead person; that’s why you wince when you read trivial comments on the same profile, knowing all the time that the commenter is no longer around to make such banal remarks.

Over the past several months, I have often described social media as a sort of illusion. There is the illusion of popularity, the illusion of philanthropy, and the illusion of substance.

In some ways, however, I think that the mortality-defying effects of social media are the most illusory and therefore the most dangerous. The more time you spend on Facebook, engaging with the social detritus of your friends, former friends, and hope-to-be friends, the more you sidestep the most central truth of your own existence.

Everyone dies one day, but on Facebook, all you can see is eternal bacchanalia and laughter.

The easiest recommendation is to unplug your life and spend more time appreciating the fragile beauty of real things. The fact that something—a season, a flower, or a person—is temporary, essentially makes that something more valuable.

But realizing that everyone, myself included, needs social media for practical life purposes, a more realistic suggestion revolves around mindfulness.

“Mindfulness”—this may sound like an empty word, but I believe that it encapsulates the overarching message that I’ve tried to drive home throughout a semester of column writing.

The Internet is powerful, practical, and practically powerful. You need to use it for these reasons.

However, you need to use the Internet well, which requires significant reflection. Think hard before you click to open a new tab; philosophize as you sign into Facebook.

Everything about the Internet conspires to sweep you away into an arcade world of images and sounds, but you must resist in order to maintain your identity and willpower.

After all, your humanity is based in this resistance—and in the wonderful freedom that follows.

Sam Danello ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Grays Hall. His column appears on alternate Mondays. 

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Columns