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71 4 The Digital Graveyard Online Social Networking Sites as Vehicles of Remembrance Jenny Ryan This is the use of memory: for liberation— not less of love but expanding of love beyond desire, and so liberation from the future as well as the past. T. S. Eliot 1 Only the Lonelyhearts of the world expect a personal reply from the movie, phonograph record, or radio program. Or to be more precise, we are all Lonelyhearts inasmuch [as] we “interact” with books, pets, infants, or distant correspondents. John Durham Peters 2 In October 2007, my grandmother was diagnosed with the cancer that led to her eventual death the following spring.3 A devoted mother of fourteen children, she, along with her children, grappled with many difficult spiritual and medical decisions throughout her illness. One evening I witnessed firstDOI : 10.5876/9781607321705.c04 72 Jenny Ryan hand the incredible unity and strength that comes about in the toughest of life’s challenges and the capacity for technology to extend the possibilities for collectively coping with them. Ten of my aunts and uncles took part in a conference call to discuss plans and options: my mother, a nurse, gave medical advice; my uncle Joe, manager of a medical supply company, arranged the delivery of a special bed; my aunt Mary, who works for an insurance company , discussed insurance options; my uncle Jack, a devout Christian, had been researching spiritual healing centers; and my grandmother interjected often with words of love, faith, and strength. Fueled by a desire to help, I realized that I could tap into my specific area of expertise, online social media. In a matter of hours, I set up a public wiki and encouraged my family members to write in the communal blog, to help in the creation of an extensive address book, and to arrange visits on a digital calendar. The wiki was quickly adopted by a substantial majority of my family, including the many out-of-town grandchildren . It became a source of ongoing updates about my grandmother’s condition, and the calendar proved particularly useful for organizing a continuous stream of visits and appointments. When she passed away, my family continued to regularly update the blog with tales of their daily struggles, fond memories of the past, inspirational quotes, and Biblical passages. They also posted photographs and videos. The site became a living memorial, a collective archive of personal remembrances, simultaneously shaping and shaped by their very inscription. The Internet is a complex new medium that allows for the intimacy, interactivity , and casualness of speech, as well as the permanency and permeability of writing. Despite popular discourse’s perpetuation of a distinction between “virtual” cyberspace and “real life,” it is evident that people are integrating technologies of the Internet into their lives as extensions of everyday communication and identity performance, shaped by changing cultural conditions that are in turn affected by these new technologies. Drawing from the methodological approach of existential anthropology, the principal aim of this project is a phenomenological exploration of the ways in which these unique facets of the Internet have enabled mourners to expand the process of remembering the dead.4 Specifically, I have examined examples of online shrines on the social networking sites MySpace, Facebook, and, positioning them as vehicles for individual and collective remembrance of the dead. While skimming my Facebook News Feed5 one afternoon, I came across a headline informing me that thirty-six of my Friends had joined a Group called “In Memory of Mr. Burns.” Shocked, I clicked on the name and navigated to the Group’s homepage, where I discovered that my beloved seventhgrade social studies teacher had recently died of cancer. Hundreds of his former students had already joined the Group, the Wall of which was littered with touching remembrances both funny and profound. In the discussion threads, a student proposed that members create a book of their fond memories for his 73 The Digital Graveyard family. I immediately joined in the conversation: “That Social Studies classroom was the safest place in the world during lunch in 7th grade. Thanks for providing solace to a shy little nerd. A superhero amongst mere mortals. What was that banana song he played in class?” Later that day, an old classmate responded on my Wall: “YES WE HAVE NO BANANAS, BANANAS IN SCRANTON PA! (the banana song in mr. b’s class. fucking great).” I found myself digging through old photo albums until I found two photos...


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