Web Ghosts


Isn't it surreal how numbers become so abstract, so quickly?

A thought experiment: how would you visualize the number one hundred and fifty-thousand, in human lives? Do you see a mosaic of roaring fans packed into a couple of football stadiums, while you circle above in a Goodyear™ blimp? Perhaps you're standing on top of the Empire-State building, scanning down on a parade of soldiers stuffed dozens of blocks along, marching in military formation? Darkly, someone's mind drifts, contemplating the atrocities of genocide, the emaciated bodies in myriad piles on the frozen fields of Auschwitz.

We'd all agree that the human scale of death is at once both humbling and horrifying to bear in mind. According to the World Health Organization, around 56 million people die each year. Divide that by 365 days for the year, and you get a world average of around 154,000, gone everyday—about two full Candlestick parks, including the parking lot of beer-guzzling tailgaters. Or consider by the hour: 6,392—over 100 a minute! And if you wanted to know, I did the math—this boils down to a per-second death-rate of one point three three people. Every. Single. Second.

I’m curious how these numbers might translate into our social media age—where pretty much everyone and their grandmother now contributes to Internet culture (with at least a Facebook avatar and a half-baked selfie gallery); what happens when a person's spirit leaves its body—but not their login info along with it? It seems as though in most cases, a web-ghost is born.

According the The Loop, a Canadian tech website, out of Facebook's one billion users, ten thousand of them die everyday. In the first eight years of the company's existence, nearly thirty million of their customers had ceased theirs'. And what's more, at this current rate of profile decay, by 2065 there will be more avatars of the dead than of the living.

A recently passed friend’s Facebook account

A recently passed friend’s Facebook account

It might seem counter intuitive, but only until recently was it Facebook's firm policy to leave a profile up, after a user had died, by default. Family or friends, they could only notify the company of their loss, and if verified, Facebook would memorialize the page and put “Remembering” before the name on their profile. But now, if you're so inclined, you can plan for it. Just like you'd prepare a last will and testament for your property, you can now protect your virtual identity for when you make your ultimate logoff.

The company has added two new features, in which a user may choose her own digital destiny. Now a mortal user can designate a “legacy contact,” who’d be given Account-Manager status once you’ve passed, to post photos and updates on your funeral arrangements, for example—yet wouldn't actually have access to messages and other private data. More significantly, Facebook's feature allows you to demand that they erase and take down your account, after your verified death, of course.

But what if you're unaware of the social media Goliath's policy, or simply don't care (shout out to the nihilists)? Well, the profile remains the same, seemingly eternal. And if you've lost friends or a loved-one since the ubiquity of social media, you might've noticed that when you pull up their profiles, most are utterly unchanged. Web ghosts, haunting around the server farms.

My friend’s Facebook account, still active. Anton died in 2014.

My friend’s Facebook account, still active. Anton died in 2014.

I'm taking a weekly film-studies class at a Portland community college, and we often sit close in the auditorium—as strangers, but out of habit. Just a few weeks ago, outside during a break, we meet for the first time in the dark, chilly drizzle, where she invites me into her warm car.

We're chatting and smoking, the rain pattering on the tinny roof. I’m in the backseat rolling a joint, she’s up front with her friend (dropping-in by way of Detroit). She has the seat leaned way back, her left foot kicked on the dash, an elbow leaning on the window sill. Her head is propped by her small fist, smoking a cigarette with her other hand, staring in a distracted silence at the car parked ahead.

Her friend is really excited, unabashedly flirting with me and twisting back, and forth, making eye-contact to better talk at us. We go back to the auditorium and watch the movie, this week it's Being John Malkovich.

When class ends she invites me over to her place, and I find myself in her room, standing in the eye of a hurricane life scattered everywhere, a thousand little insights found on the floor of a young creative woman.

But she's not there, so I just awkwardly wait for her friend who sorts through the layers of clothes in a suitcase, putting together an outfit, wanting to look cute for when we went out.

The muffled sound of a voice comes from under the crack of the closed door, reverberating from another room and down the hallway. A soft, thoughtful voice projected through a pillow, broadcast from a damp cave.

Her friend now satisfied with her look, we leave the room, walk through the hallway, and climb down the stairs. I don't see her anywhere, but I think I hear her disembodied, incomprehensible voice, talking behind closed doors. We leave without her.

Her friend forgets to bring her ID and none of the other bars let us in, so we drink wine at my place and sit in front of the fire, talking bohemian through the night. I wake up with a lemon in my mouth and wished she had come with us.

Next class, during break, I bump into her in front of the bodega across campus. Sharing a cigarette under the drizzly florescence of a street lamp, we talk. She recommends this comedian, can't remember his name, and suddenly we're both laughing like deranged critics, about our similar tastes, and the absurdity of anti-comedy. And though she's so present, so grounded, it's like she's got a Bluetooth signal with aliens; she's here, but she's calling it in from another planet. It's charming, and mysterious as hell. There's something so attractive about someone with a lot on their mind. I get a feeling she's like this with most people she meets, turning strangers into such quick friends. And I can't help but think—how lucky I am to meet such a sweet and funny girl...this is why I moved to Portland...this is the kind of person this city attracts...it was inevitable that we'd eventually meet...


I think it's natural for me to be somewhat shocked and saddened, even if I hadn't known her very well. It was tragic, unexpected, and her family and friends are reeling. I find myself struggling with the temptation to discuss my own idiosyncrasies re: death, or the intellectual instinct for commentary on the broader implications adnauseam. But I can't help but consider the impact her presence had on me, now that she's passed—peacefully, but inexplicably before her time. In her early 20's, she was healthy and happy*.

The conversation at the bodega would be that last I'd see of her. I hear she dies only because we had become Facebook friends and one morning, my Newsfeed blows up with photos and messages posted to her Timeline. Mysteriously, I can't ascertain the cause of death for some time, the information passed around veiled in grief's willful suspension of belief.

The sorrow in response to the suddenness of her passing halts my momentum, and I think of my busy day ahead; I turn to look away. But my intuition was right: she impacted so many people, on such a deep level—the sheer number of people sharing their grief, in such a public way, it's overwhelming, bringing tears to my puffy eyes.

A few days after she passes, every time I check Facebook it's still a constant reminder. Surely I'm not the only one familiar with this sense of digital overload, or as a date recently put it, this “impersonal trauma” of grieving on social outlets like Facebook.

After thinking about it, I come to realize I'm now friends with at least three different ghosts on Facebook. And I've learned—practically in real time—of their deaths through my News Feed. Of course, I'm not the only one familiar with that feeling by now, that eerie moment when your heart stops, as you read a posting on the person's timeline, something cryptic, longingly vague, asking “why?” Why?

In stereotypical millennial fashion, I recently find myself on a Tinder date discussing the Internet, when they suddenly bring up their experience with this phenomenon. When I mention I'm working on this piece, brought on by the girl's death, her eyes light up and she blurts, “I'm pretty sure I knew her.” I was surprised, but Portland is still a pretty small town.

“I'm pretty sure, I mean it would make sense. A girl in my fiction class passed away at the beginning of November. I never did get to know her—we sat on opposite sides of the room. To be in a classroom with someone, but never get to know them—that they could pass away with no connection made—it's been the strangest sort of absence to be made aware of.”

She said it was also something that had been on her mind recently. “I've received the news of four deaths of friends and family members in the last five years—all through text message. I think we're in an age of impersonal trauma.”

Indeed, such a strange way to learn of someone's passing; as a social species, it's a frontier we've never explored before, in any similar capacity. In a culture where we're so quick to make Facebook friends (and link professional networks, or follow nameless-faced, homespun Instagram celebrities), connecting accounts after just barely meeting—and sometimes never meeting at all, IRL.

Then a death comes unexpectedly (as it's wont to do), while before you unfolds a very intimate portrait of someone who was merely an acquaintance, frankly. Family and friends, countless other avatars you've never heard of before, all now publicly sharing their sorrow on your News Feed, updating you by the minute. It's kind of bizarre.

Hope’s “About” section.

Hope’s “About” section.

*My own father died similarly: a death which may or may not have been intentional. When I said that she was healthy and happy, I meant by all appearances. There was a certain darkness I felt sitting next to her, despite her own innocence—it hovered above her. If you look at photos of my dad you can see this darkness quite distinctly, despite a goofy smile. He died before Facebook was a thing, but I can imagine what it would look like if his passing happened today, judging by the hundreds who attended his memorial. After he died, I went down a similar road of self destruction, but have learned how to better battle these demons—them by nature or nurture. Sometimes I wonder, if she had come out with us that night, that maybe I could have shown her a light, something to distract her just long enough from falling off an edge. Alas, it's rather selfish to think about.