My friend Andy died last year. Maybe the year before—it’s hard to remember the timeline, now. I got a message—I believe over facebook, or MySpace—that he had gotten in some sort of car accident, was in a coma. He died soon after.
We were friends on facebook. I’d known him through the summer acting internship I did right after I graduated college. Andy was a technical apprentice; he helped in the shop and I think he was the assistant stage manager for one of the shows. One of the mantras of that summer was WTFA – where the fuck is Andy?! –because he kept disappearing whenever we needed him. He was a nerd, but an endearing one; he kept his hair long, bleached, and in a ponytail; I seem to remember that he’d started to keep it that way so he could dress up as one of Tolkien’s elves. Had he been able to function without his glasses, he might well have passed for one.
It’s been several months, now, since he passed away. His facebook is still up and running. You would hardly know from looking at it that he had died; it still shows recent activity, because his friends and his family keep posting things, writing on the wall as if he could respond from the afterlife. I know, because I’ve heard of it happening to other people’s friends, that when someone dies the family can contact the social networking sites and gain access to the accounts. Usually they leave up a message about the death, or delete the accounts entirely. No one seems to have done that for Andy’s, so there’s an illusion that he somehow still exists. The comments he left on my wall, on my photos from that summer, are still there. When I read them, I can hear his voice in my head, and he sounds just as alive as anyone ever does through a computer screen.
His profile popped up in my sidebar the other day, with a suggestion from facebook that I should send him a message. How unintentionally sobering that computer-generated selection was. I clicked on to his profile, and as it loaded, was surprised to see that people had recently wished him a happy birthday, a few dropping an “I miss you, buddy” after their salutation. He might have been away on a trip, a foreign exchange where internet access was limited. I scrolled down farther and saw that his mother had been loading albums of old pictures of him, tagging him in each: The Hobbit, 2006. Andy’s Pre-school Graduation - 1988. South Pacific 10/03. Tagging him and his dead profile over and over and over again, like a visual record of her grief: “Today I thought about you 27 times, over 27 separate pictures.”
I left my own post, telling him about facebook saying I should send a message, wishing, like so many others, that the electric impulses and binary code that somehow translate into words on a screen could transcend the boundaries between our existence and whatever plane he functions on now. I’ve always believed that there was something after we die, but somehow, the futility of writing those words on a wall he will never see makes me sense a void beyond our lives that few people, I think, ever really face. It’s easier to believe we live on. It gives us something to hope for.
And, in the meantime, facebook lives on for us: an electronic, interactive memorial. Our social networking sites are so new that protocol for the dead hasn’t really been firmly established; and who knows how long facebook might exist after our generation dies off? I tell my students, sometimes, that the Internet never dies. It’s true, in a sense; once you put information out into the web, you have no control of how many copies or archives of it are made. A single picture you post on a single page could be duplicated thousands of times, on server hard drives, on personal computers, in search engines, in internet archives. Even if you delete the original picture, those unknown copies still live on. And there’s no way of telling how long our data will last. Alien archeologists could be digging it out of the earth twenty thousand years from now, resurrecting the profiles we assumed would die with us.
What an odd way to achieve immortality. We spend (at least I spend) countless minutes browsing, commenting, “like”-ing, blogging, status updating. I tend to think of it as inconsequential nonsense, an amusing pastime, a way of connecting with people I don’t get to see on a daily basis. And yet it is, perhaps, a more accurate record of my life than anything else I have ever done. If I died this evening, you could use facebook to trace a superficial progress of the last 6 years of my life.
I don’t know if I am appalled by the fact that Andy’s profile is still active, a macabre pseudo-representation of who he was, or if I am grateful to have the record of the impact he had on me, grateful for a place to tell him, where other people can see, that I still miss him.
At any rate, I know the answer to that question we asked so many times that summer. I know exactly where the fuck Andy is right now: he’s there, almost breathing, suspended in the ephemeral existence that facebook still grants him.