Grief and distance in the digital age

A week ago today, a young woman called Maria died unexpectedly in her sleep. She was a little under years old and lived in a city in Ohio. Ever since I heard the news, I’ve been grieving – and not just a little down in the dumps, I mean actually crying like a little baby. I’ve not cried this much for as long as I can remember, certainly not in my adult life. And I’ve never grieved for anyone so intensely – not even, dare I say it, my own grandparents.

The strange thing about this grief is that I’ve only met Maria once. Back in summer 2007 I was doing PhD fieldwork in the USA, researching the contemporary renaissance of the radical labour union, the IWW. Maria was a member of the branch when the union’s HQ was based in her home town, and I spent a few days with her, wandering around town, walking in the woods, listening to music at her place, meeting some of her friends and union comrades. It was a nice encounter – we got on well, had fun, became Facebook friends, and when I returned to the UK we moved on with our lives. We kept in touch on-and-off after that – right up until her death – even joking occasionally about flying over to see one another, but it was never anything serious. She was a really lovely woman, and that was that.

But now I’m inexplicably filled with grief and barely a day goes by without spending a little while thinking about her, and maybe having a(nother) little cry. Given how little we were connected, I just don’t understand quite why her death has hit me so hard. Now, there is a lot written online about why people grieve celebrities so intensely, but nothing that I can find that explores why we grieve – in a very real, deeply visceral way – for ‘ordinary’ people we barely know.

So this is my attempt to put the grief to bed and to work out why on earth it has had such an unexpectedly enormous impact. Spoiler alert: a lot of it, but not all, revolves around Facebook.

  • Social media and the intersubjective cultivation of self: This is a fancy way of saying that we construct our identities in relation to others around us, and my ongoing interactions with her on Facebook created a feeling of togetherness across a vast distance. Even though we would usually only ‘like’ one another’s updates, the pattern of this distant interaction was enough to build a certain form of connection, especially when it became comments or private messages.
  • Those damn algorithms: Facebook creates structures in its system to try and predict what users are most likely to enjoy or find interesting. Part of that is linked to how we have reacted to others’ posts in the past. The ongoing pattern of Maria and I liking, sharing or commenting on one another’s posts will have been ‘learned’ by Facebook and would have reinforced itself over time, meaning that we would receive a steady stream of each other’s updates tailored to what we want to see. Much like the Polymorph in Red Dwarf, Facebook’s algorithms amplified our emotional attachment through presenting itself as that which we would want to see (a fantasy, of sorts, but in this case very much based on reality).
  • The ‘public archive’ of others’ reactions: Facebook acts as an archive of interactions, and I discovered that Maria had died through others tagging her in their photographs and messages. I saw her cousins, aunts, uncles and even her brother pour their hearts out right in front of me. I saw her childhood friends doing the same, posting pictures of Maria as a young child. I saw her band-mates and friends from the local punk scene talk of the happy times they had spent together. So much humanity and grief and shock was captured and frozen in time through these incredibly personal messages. I already knew Maria was a glowing, friendly, up-beat, talented, caring human who was incessantly wonderful to be around, but literally hundreds of messages confirmed and amplified this over and over and over again.
  • The condition of not-being-there: In contrast with the emotional shrinking of the distance between us – this intensified level of knowledge and the unfolding nature of all the messages of grief across her Facebook page – I am still far, far away. I don’t know what caused her death, I don’t know if she suffered, and despite seeing pictures of her grave, I almost certainly will never, ever be able to pay my last respects. This distant-proximity, then, has built an infrastructure of connection that has no ‘release valve’, no way of finding an end-point, a goodbye, a closure. (And here come the water-works again).
  • Commonality in real life: Put simply, despite the clever computer wizardry of Facebook, Maria and I genuinely were friends, we had a set of broadly common values and interests, shared a similar sense of humour, and we enjoyed one another’s company (if only for a few fleeting days). Had I visited her town again, I would definitely have seen her, and, I’d like to think, vice versa. No matter what the internet is capable of, if you don’t have a basic human attraction (in this case, largely of the non-romantic kind!), then you will not connect. This point is not at the end of the list because it’s not important; in fact, it’s the most important of them all. Real life gives substance to the ‘structures’ through which it passes, and breathes life into an otherwise empty matrix of logics and digital connections.

So there you go. Distance can indeed make the heart grow considerably fonder.

Here’s to you, old buddy.



* I’ve deliberately avoided including Maria’s surname for what I hope are fairly obvious reasons. If you know her, you’ll know who I’m talking about.

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