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Facebook of the Dead

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 3, 2013
pp. 80-97 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0072

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Speaking to us from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud tells us that death isn’t just the end of life but a force that gives life its shape and texture. Regarding the physical world, Freud’s observation shows merit. Take the cemeteries in the centers of Paris, London, New York and Rome, for example, each an emblem of the way cultures grow out of shared responses to death. To look back in time in search of the earliest evidence of human culture, you would have to look beyond the earliest pottery, made in southern China, and past the cave paintings at Lascaux to the first burial sites, in modern-day Israel, where the dead were tucked into the earth in a fetal position, exiting the world just as they’d entered. When applied to the world online, however, Freud’s argument seems to miss. Internet culture is the one exception—that is, the richest and most expansive culture in history is the only culture not founded by death.

In the beginning, Facebook’s founders were nearly immortal. Ten years ago, the site was exclusive to college students, a demographic whose leading cause of death is “accidents” followed by suicides, then murders, which is to say, you hardly die at all in college. Looking at the U.S. Census’s line graphs for death rates sorted by age groups, you see the line swing low toward the X-axis after our vulnerable infant years, then stay low, hovering a hair above immortality, until our midthirties, where heart disease and cancer wait. It was in this Neverland that Internet culture was conceived, was born and reached maturity nearly in the same breath.

As a site designed and populated exclusively by college kids, Facebook had little reason to make accommodations for its users’ mortality when it was launched in 2004. However, over the past ten years, Facebook has been given, or has taken on, a role that couldn’t have been imagined even by ambitious Mark Zuckerburg. (His first run of business cards, which read, “I’m CEO … bitch,” reminds us that even at Harvard a sophomore is still a sophomore.) It’s important to recognize Zuckerburg’s website this way, as a college contact book stretched far beyond its original purpose.

Facebook now exists as the capital city of the Internet Age. America spends more than a tithe’s share of its time online on Facebook. (Surprisingly, most countries that use Facebook use it even more than America does.) That’s significantly more than the time given to Google sites, which include YouTube, and more than double all the hours spent on Amazon, eBay, Tumblr, ESPN, Wikipedia and Twitter combined. The Facebook of today, designed by immortals for immortals, exists as the backdrop for life in the twenty-first century. As Justin Timberlake, in the role of Napster founder Sean Parker, says in The Social Network, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, now we’re gonna live on the Internet.” But lacking any accommodations for its citizens’ mortality, Facebook is ill suited as a domain where a real culture of real people may thrive.

Internet culture, with its denial of death, is a product of the twentieth century, which saw death grow more abstract and more distant from lived experience. A century ago it would have been unusual to come of age without having witnessed death firsthand, when criminal executions were public holidays across Europe and when deaths mostly took place at home, with friends and family standing around the sickbed. A rapid change in western sentiments came at the turn of the twentieth century, when criminals were executed privately or not at all. As health care modernized, people increasingly died alone in hospitals, away from home and familiar faces. With the advent of sulfonamides and penicillin around the 1930s (these were the first drugs really to cure anything), doctors increasingly felt that it was their job to eradicate death and their fault when patients died. More than simply denied the opportunity to take part in death rituals at home, today’s dying often don’t know they’re dying. A sociological study done in...

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