Sunday, November 1, 2015

Identity, Life and Death in the Facebook Picture Window

This past Sunday I celebrated my birthday. In case you were wondering, it was my 39th birthday, again. By about mid-afternoon, I had 61 birthday congratulations, and by the next day the number had risen to 79. Regardless about whether or not you think this is a high or low number, or that you can't believe I'm still on Facebook - it's pretty cool to think that with a click people could reach out and wish me well. Did it mean something to have colleagues, friends, family, old teachers, and even old boyfriends congratulate me on my birthday? Actually it was kind of nice knowing that people took the time to post, even if it took them only 10 seconds to do it.

So how does celebrating my birthday connect to my online identity? These people who took the time to connect are my family and friends on or offline. There is no separation. Getting a birthday greeting from a person that I know mainly from online interactions, means as much as those people I knew first face-to-face. Receiving a birthday message via Facebook almost means as much as a card (whether it is digital or paper). I say almost, because honestly it takes under a minute to post a comment on Facebook, whereas sending a card takes a lot longer. 

My About Me page captures part of my online identity
This leads me to another consideration, how well do those who know you from online activities really know you? After this week's readings and Monday night's discussion, I understand that they know as much as you want them to know. As indicated in  Kate Fagan's article,  "Split Screen", we only know what we want others to know about us, whether this is unintentional or intentional, as in Madison Holleran's case. The moments we share may reflect an ideal life and an ideal self.  Brittany Bandur in her post, "The Great Power, Smoke and Mirrors of Social Media" explores the fact that although what we post online may seem idyllic, what you see online is just part of whole story. I fully agree with her point that although our on-line image is just part of the picture, it is authentic, and perhaps it's reasonable for others to assume that our on-line identity is just a fragment of real life. 

So if this is how people get to know us on-line, this edited version of ourselves, how well do they  really know us? The truth is, how well does anyone really know us? Don't we all project an edited version of ourselves outside of our homes? Hasn't that public image of ourselves always been an edited version and it's not just Social Media that is totally changing things? Or is our online identity edited more than we realize?

Window on Snow by Sharon Mollerus, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  Sharon Mollerus 
After reading Fagan's article, I thought quite a bit about Madison Holleran and how "She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living."  Initially, when I read this part, I immediately thought that it represented how other people connect, as I felt I spent very little time editing my life. Prior to this class and our discussion,  I believed that what I projected on Facebook, was kind of a What-You-See-is-What-You-Get Kind of image. After an exploration of my own posts and media, I realized that over the years I have been making a conscious effort to portray myself in a certain way, which is a necessary part of looking at our own digital footprint and how we model it for others.  As educators, posting information or media that could potentially be misunderstood or misconstrued, just isn't worth it. And although we do not necessarily try to live a dual life, by controlling what we post and coming to terms with our "acceptable identity fragment", this is part of what it means to be an educator in today's world. In Social Media, your private life is not your private life, as there is nothing private when you post on-line.

Identity by fotologic, on Flickr
 Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  fotologic 
When I stepped back to look at my Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles and the connections that I've made, I started to see that identity that I have been shaping online. Jeannine Whitehouse in her post, "What Will You Leave Behind?" explores many of the same questions about authenticity and her acute awareness of what is "acceptable" to one's audience. What really got me thinking, was Jeannine's comment on Jason Miller's article, on how Facebook's use of algorithms can bend what our audience sees, thereby further misconstruing who we are and the authenticity of a person's identity. With this in mind the question is, who really is the editor of our online identities?

Although Social Media does not always truly represent our whole selves, it does represent at least a part of us. And sometimes a fragment is enough,  especially if that is all that's left when a person dies. Over three years ago, my cousin Stephanie died in a car accident. She was a very social girl whose life and relationships were all well marked on Instagram and Facebook. After she died, we didn't just reminisce and share our stories and memories, we traveled down her timeline, mapping out her life just hours before she died. Maybe this sounds morbid. Alright, I know it does. By exploring the timeline, my sisters and I could examine her last days, so we could see how she was and what was going on. Facebook allowed us to see more. Her Facebook identity,  bent or fractured, let me get to know my cousin again.  In being able to journey the timeline, we were able to see that she was happy. Of course we didn't know if she was really happy.  Did it make a difference in the end? Nope. But, it did made us feel better to connect with her one last time. It was like we were watching the last moments of her life before she died and making a final connection. Maybe this sounds weird. Ugh, it's hard to explain.

Shortly after she died, my aunt was able to take over her Facebook page (see Facebook form "Special Request for a Deceased Person's Account"),  her Facebook site was "memorialized", which meant that it was deleted or left unchanged after the reported death, and a memorial page went up.  Did the group help my aunt with her grieving? Yes. Judging by the pictures and prayers that my aunt has posted over the past 3 years, it has solidified her relationship with my cousin's closest friends. Instead of sad or awkward "run-ins" they are able to still connect, evident by the posts and pictures. As Joshua Andrew shares in his article, "How We Grieve on Social Media", Facebook helped her with her grieving process by solidifying that community, so she had a place where she could connect with a multitude of people so she never felt alone. How we grieve can be considered different in the social networking realm than how we may interact face to face. According to an article from CBC, "The Online Life After Death", because of social media, discussing the grief of a loved one "even months after a death was acceptable in the social networking realm, particularly among friends who do not live in the same city". It was also noted in the article, that there needs to be a connection between the family and the digital community when someone dies. If a family doesn't connect with the deceased person's online life, the digital community has nowhere to grieve. And in reality, this might be the only way those separated by distance can actually find out about the death.

On the flip side, sometimes you don't want to remember or connect again and again through all the updates. When the memorial page was created, along with grieving friends and family, I posted a memory and joined the Stephanie's Memorial group. In joining the group, I got every single update to my cousin's site. At first I didn't mind. It was nice to come together as a community... remember and read all the different memories and prayers. At first I didn't mind - later I felt conflicted. For the next few months, the updates went on. I stopped checking out every update, not because I didn't care, but because I needed to stop thinking about her death. Just as in Julie Buntin's article, "She's Still Dying on Facebook", with every picture, prayer, memory, or update I was reminded. After a while I needed to stop remembering, yet I felt too guilty to stop following the group. I know, this probably sounds a bit selfish, but it's part of how I grieve.

If you are interested in learning more about Facebook's new policy of allowing one more post after you die, take a look at this article from Time Magazine, "Here's What Happens to Your Facebook Account After You Die" by Jack Linshi.

When I think of how our lives and identity are shaped online, it's not just a footprint that we are creating. As people around the world are sharing their lives in this space, all of this will stay forever. The information, which helps to form our identity, is going to become a digital archive that shapes who we were. All it would take for future historians and paleontologists is to analyze the digital data to get a sense of what our lives were like. In Adam Ostrow's TED Talk, "After Your Final Status Update", he reminds us of this very fact, "... today we're all creating this incredibly rich digital archive that's going to live in the cloud indefinitely, years after we're gone."  How will this archive of information be used? What will we look like to our future children? Will we appear like people who craved social interaction so much, that face to face wasn't enough? Or will we seemed like individuals who needed to share every social interaction and thought? In any case with all the fragments, historians will have first-hand accounts which will help tell the story of who we were. Bent or fractured, it will be more information than what has ever been left previously by past generations.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting Jenn, I really enjoyed reading this! I often think about how well people really know us and how well we really know them online. I know there are people who I am ffriends with and they don't have their birthdays posted and I don't know their birthdays. Now do I know everyone's birthday in my extended family? No I don't...I have a big extended family. But I hope you get the point I'm trying to make. I know that I portray myself differently online than in my real life. There are a variety of reasons why I portray myself online the way I do. That being said, I don't think we really know anyone truly by being ffriends. But that doesn't mean that we know our friends and family in real life any better. People will always hide what they don't want others to know and some people can be very good at hiding things. If we only know someone through online connections, our knowledge of them will probably be much more augmented then if we connected with them in real life on a daily basis.