Internet Zombies

Internet Zombies – A social media post-mortem.

(Non-Fiction: editorial, 1300 words)

Sites like Myspace, Facebook and the blog industry has nurtured our tendency to promiscuously share ourselves over the Internet, extending tendrils of information to the far reaches of the world. Networking. New friends or acquaintances. Fan groups. All parties sought by our generation of avid bloggers, facebookers and myspacers. Perhaps there is something to be said about the Appolonian temple mantra “Know Thyself” in the electronic millennium where a complex human existence can be reduced to a few succinct lines, or scaled it even further down to nothing but a semantically laden username. Hello. My name is ________ [4-12 characters no spaces]

But I digress. While there should very well be a branch of sociology devoted to “self-profiling”, I got to thinking more so about life beyond life on the Internet.

Identity theft in online communities is a commonplace occurance with individuals impersonating celebrities or misrepresenting their physical appearance, gender and age. Nevertheless, whether true to objective reality or entirely fictitious, we have carved a life for ourselves in a world that enables choices beyond our control in the face-to-face interaction. We surround ourselves with like minded people from across vast distances, and communicate in real time. We name ourselves, whether it may be an altogether different proper name, a calligraphied initial or a utilitarian tag. We photoshop out our flaws, crop out unwanted faces from our company. We are for all intents and purposes born again, and this time on our own terms.

But everything that goes up must come down. E-communities purge their members, apply dreaded posting bans on individuals, block IPs, the electronic version of peer rejection perhaps more so painful to the individual who has carefully crafted their avatar to be a veritable work of art. The logic here is if an airbrushed, eloquent, three-times-edited copy of one cannot achieve the desired social rank online and is alienated by his peers, there may very well be some fundamental flaw within the person’s character that cannot be amended. The tragic e-hero is born. Google teen commits suicide due to failed e-romance. I guarantee thousands of hits.

The question I am laboriously dragging myself towards is what happens to the online avatar when the physical, meaty end of the terminal dies? I’m here inclined towards Matrix imagery of the vinyl clad gun-totting avatar of a Zion-dweller dropping dead in the middle of a busy street after being neatly impaled in “reality”.

Ever yank out a USB stick in a hurry? Perform an “Unsafe hardware removal”? Is there any way to safely posthumously disconnect someone from the internet? Or is there always data loss, do snippets of this person’s existence linger on in a journal comment thread, a forum, an old email account?

Case in point.

Three years ago, in a fit of utter boredom, I decided to search the infamous facebook for some old friends. To my surprise every person I searched did in fact have a profile, with varying degrees of accessibility. Then I stumbled onto the page of someone I was only vaguely acquainted with from a bitter soccer match some 8 years ago. One day, “J” decided to go for a late night swim in lake Ontario with some high school chums. Of the three people that dived into the lake, two came back and neither was “J”. His body was found by the police four days later.

“J”‘s facebook page still listed him as a high school student, employed at Foot locker. He was still beaming with charisma from his profile picture, sandwiched between two attractive women. “J” still liked Madonna, was still on the basketball team and his relationship was still “complicated”.
The only noticeable oddity in the profile that prompted the tragedy was the incessant stream of “RIP man” comments from friends and family. Shortly after I found a group run by his two surviving siblings and best friends that announced the date for the funeral service and offered support to the grieving.

“J”‘s case is not unique. Every time you hear of a teen being stabbed on a play court, of four people dying in a car accident, of disappearances and kidnappings, think beyond the physical presence of that individual. Think not only of the grieving family (though they are undoubtedly among the most deeply affected), but think to the forums and communities left bankrupt of that person’s input, of the lives they may have touched far far away, think of the event they listed as “Attending” and never made it to. Queries and requests pour in even in the absence of an audience.

Is there any real closure in the electronic age?

Is there a heartbeat monitor on one’s profile somewhere between their relationship and hometown? Does one’s e-community ever find out about the person’s fate or are they left to assume the user finally got a day job and quit forum trolling?

Is this some unexpected manifestation of the age old dream of immortality or is it irrefutable proof that nothing beyond the terminal monitor is even remotely real?

What prompted this discussion was the following article I came across in my internet daily digest readings.

Have a read through, no summary will do the article justice.

Towards the end of the first page the author notes:
“Wow. Sounds like something a company that thinks it owns its users’ content would do”

Nevertheless. Facebook’s idea of honouring those no longer among us is clear:
“Per our policy for deceased users, we have memorialized this person’s account. This removes certain more sensitive information and sets privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or find the person in search. The Wall remains so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.”

There’s bitter irony in that. What was once your internet surfing board is now your tombstone.

But that’s not exactly closure. The person may live on in memory with all their antics and the unedited essence of their character. What facebook is offering is not a memory box but a glorified empty shell of what was once someone’s life, sacrilegiously strung up to a pole for all to see.
Internet Zombies.
Like Johnny Mnemonic’s mysterious guide they live on as ghosts in the machine, remnants of code that store some vague image of one that is no more.

“Unsafe hardware removal. Please properly disconnect the device to prevent data loss.”

Update: Bludgeoned by peer pressure and fear of the community’s discontent, Facebook made amends to their policy and agreed to remove this person’s page.