Life on Facebook

I almost added a comment to the long, growing list of comments on Stephen's wall. I sat for a few minutes, trying to think of what to say. I'm sorry? I'm thinking of you? I read through the thirty-five or so comments that were already posted, and most of them repeated the same thoughts over and over again. Condolences piling up under Stephen's status update, saying that he had just lost his brother, Mike, and he would be flying home to New York City for the first time in years to be with his family.[Image credit: Adib Roy]

I'm embarrassed that this was my first instinct, to reduce my sympathies and caring words for a good friend to a few hundred characters typed below a pile of similar notes. I scanned through the names of people who had already left their message and didn't recognize any of them. I consider Steve a friend, but our circles never overlapped. Still, the only name on the list that seemed familiar was the wife of one of his oldest buddies from the neighborhood where he grew up. Ed's wife had left a message, but Ed had not.

Close friends don't leave a message on a Facebook page, not for something like this. Close friends call. I picked up my phone and searched my contacts for Steve. The first number I found was a local New York exchange, from when we met back in Brooklyn. I knew he had a local number for California, where he moved almost ten years ago. I tried the other number in my contact list and listened as the phone rang and rang. No answer, no message. My numbers were all incorrect. At one point, I'm sure I had the right number for Stephen, but I've switched phones a few times, and I've changed the online account I use for contact sync. My phone pulled his contact info from Facebook, and Stephen hadn't updated it with his new number.

I called my cousin Bill, who had introduced us. Bill's a bright guy, a nerd even, but he doesn't use Facebook. When I asked about Steve, he didn't ask where I had heard the bad news. It would have never occurred to him to leave a message on a Facebook wall.

"Steve's in the air. He'll be in New York City around 4:30. Call him soon after he lands, because his family is Orthodox and they'll stop answering the phone at sunset."

It's Friday, and Steve's family, like all Orthodox Jews, unplugs for the Jewish Sabbath.

If death is a natural part of living, then death has also become a natural part of life on Facebook. Some of my favorite moments on Facebook have been watching my friends grow their families with marriages and births. Who doesn't post pictures of their wedding? I have a friend who posted a wedding picture between the ceremony and the reception. As far as I know, I've seen every baby born to a Facebook friend, with a message that usually gives the baby's name, the weight, and the mother is doing just fine.

There have been moments of immense sadness, as well. I can't imagine the pain of miscarriage, but I've seen the status updates. It's a sad necessity, I think. For weeks and months, Mom looks for comfort from the aggravations of pregnancy. Friends look for advice from other moms, report their progress. In my family, we keep the baby's name to ourselves until the day he's born, but I've known the names of babies who didn't complete their journey into this world.

As one Facebook friend who had to endure this suffering explained, if you give people constant updates on your progress through pregnancy, you have to expect the questions will come around the time the baby is due. I don't know how I could have been so selfish and stupid to ask one of my friends, expecting triplets, how her boys were doing. Obviously, if she had good news to report, there would be updates, pictures, elation. She had lost all three. Her answer to me was mournful and vague. She and her partner tried to cherish the brief time they had spent with their little ones, and then they were called away.

This is one reason I keep Facebook personal and Twitter professional. Twitter is a stream of voices shouting over each other, not really expecting to be heard. Facebook is a window into my life that I've opened to the world. Here is my history. Here are my pictures. These are my other friends. I'm not friends with anyone on Facebook whose company I haven't enjoyed somehow. I'm not friends with anyone I couldn't try to stand by at the worst of times.

One of the frustrating aspects of Facebook is that permanent information exists only temporarily. What if I miss the most important messages? It makes me wonder if we're all just fools to rely on a social network, an online service, to help us manage our relationships in the real world. Sure, for dating and vacations and complaining about work, Facebook is a wonderful tool. But I'm not ashamed to say that the part of my life I manage and sustain on Facebook has become important. Important things happen on Facebook. Life changing events occur and we don't want to repeat them over and over so we post them once and let them float on the ether to be seen, or to disappear.

We share until we don't. Some of us are brave enough to keep sharing, even at the worst of times. I'm friends with a family of siblings whose father had been fighting cancer for a decade. He was winning, until he wasn't. They all kept posting messages on Facebook, and it was heart wrenching, but I admired their courage. They posted messages to him, messages to each other. They posted messages to God, pleading. They posted memories and pictures. They were all so different in their grief, just as they are all so different in life. But together they painted a portrait of a family losing someone they loved.

I wouldn't presume to know what they found in the end, but from my perspective, I hope they found the catharsis that seemed to appear in their status updates. I never responded, I never felt my immediate presence was necessary or appropriate. But they weren't posting for me, obviously. They were posting for the same reason that we want friends around when we express our grief. It helps to mark the passing time. It helps to see our emotions reflected in the faces of others, to remind us that we're not alone.

Most of all it helps to get the words out and know that they are floating away. Like placing a candle on a paper boat and letting it go. We turn around and walk away, and we don't forget what the candle looked like, but we don't need to watch as it burns down and slowly sinks below the surface.