When I die, what happens online?

April 11, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

I’ve taken something of an accidental hiatus from the blog the past few months. “Real life” responsibilities left me rather distracted, and without a word, I “disappeared” from the face of the earth, as far as everyone at Dangerous Intersection knew anyway. Or, in my view, Dangerous Intersection perhaps “disappeared” from my radar. Either way, a community of people with whom I had communicated, traded knowledge and ideas suddenly vanished from the world entirely, and I from it. Because DI does not occupy the real world in any tangible sense for me, when I neglected it, it nigh did cease to exist. And likewise, I did not exist to the people who have known me only through it.

This concept got me thinking about the expanse of telecommunications we have in our hands, and what it may mean for real human relationships. Can we define faraway, supposed acquaintances who can vanish from our knowledge at any time (as I did) as “friends”? And, as this post’s title muses, what happens to my online network of psuedobuddies when I leave, or die?

I don’t mean to downplay the potential of online communication. People made due for centuries maintaining meaningful relationships with mere pen-pals, using a far less forgiving medium and time-frame. I think of the letters exchanged between the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, for years upon years, across many miles, maintaining a friendship and respect nearly across the grave, as it turned out. Thus it can clearly happen that long-distance, barely-seen friends can have an impact on one another and form a meaningful bond.

If anything, the internet has expanded that possibility and given us all more access to other people- their work, their photos, their hobbies (like blogging or photography), their fanatic rantings. The immediacy of modern communication can give us more and more intimate long-distance friends. So much so, that we may feel we actually know these people, these identities constructed by the very individual (think of flatteringly-altered photos, omitted details on profiles, and the like).

But perhaps the intimacy comes on too quickly, and without warrant. It appears that psychologically, a screen and a few hundred miles can make us all more forthcoming with out brand new “friends” online. When psychologists want to study touchy issues– like drug use or less-accepted sex practices- they favor computer-administered surveys over oral interviews or even paper questionnaires. Something about that screen makes us open up and feel comfortable enough to divulge the gory details of our lives, apparently.

The sudden intimacy fostered by the internet has brought us great things; collaborations across the globe, the reconnecting of friends separated by oceans and continents, even the collection of sharp minds that write and read here at Dangerous Intersection. It has become a cliché to say that “the world has gotten smaller”, but for our practical purposes, it has. For those in a preciously miniscule minority- say, transgender teens, for example- the internet has made it possible to find common others with whom to relate where once they would have needed to search high and low for an empathetic ear, or worse, felt completely and hopelessly alone. In this way, the internet has become a harbinger of comfort and friendship.

Of course, harmful intimacies flourish online, too. Take Dateline NBC’s immensely popular “To Catch a Predator” series as an example. Teaming up with the sex-offender-busting website, Perverted-Justice, a Dateline reporter corners man after man who has attempted to solicit and meet an underage boy or girl online for sex. As much as the media sensationalizes the segment, the exercise does make a valid example of what can happen when strangers can communicate intimately and effortlessly.

But rather than the fear-tactic “horror stories” of the internet, I find fascinating the blend of friendly, far-away relationships, the familiar but distant people we never “meet” face to face, and whether we can ever know or care about them. I return again to my title: what if upon posting this essay, I crash into my keyboard, suddenly dead of a heart attack or stroke or anything else? What would become of those online relationships? How would anyone ever know that I had died rather than gotten distracted once more? And furthermore, should I care whether they know or not? Would I care if someone I faintly “knew” online died in a similar way?

Online communities like Myspace and Facebook have made it easier to confirm the real-world status of a person. If they still log on, they live. If they die or move to a remote nation-state or join an Amish community, you’ll know. Some websites even collect links to the Myspaces of the dead, where friends and families may still post in remembrance.

So perhaps these communities will solve the problem of net-life-continuity that vexes me after all. Online communities come with disadvantages, too; stalking or preying upon someone becomes all the easier when you can find your subject’s class schedule, address, and work location in one fell swoop. But local news stations love to hone in on this threat, and no doubt you’ve heard it run into the ground.

We live in a rather paradoxical era- so many ways to access so many people, and yet more and more people complain of feeling alone. People no longer have dinner guests, exchange small talk with the neighbors, or make real-life-friends, it often seems. Yet we flock online for sources of social support, posting on message boards, applying to dating sites, or languishing in chat rooms for hours. It seems oxymoronic, I think, to try to get closer to people by shutting up alone in a room with a computer. At the same time, some of the most high quality discourse I’ve experienced has taken place online, on this very site.

This post does not have a distinct message, only a musing. We live in an age of contradictions, where you may have your most heartfelt discussions with only the text of a person, instead of their face. But we have to make due with our limited (or limiting?) technology, I suppose, and enjoy it for both its benefits and faults.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Entertainment, Friendships/relationships, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (8)

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  1. Ben says:

    Well, thats kind of the neat thing, the posts get kept in an archive. So, actually, while you were away, I was just getting to know you a bit better. How ironic is that.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Dangerous Intersection has become a second home to me, but what a strange home it is! It’s nothing like the place where my body lives. In my physical home, people know each others’ voices and footsteps. They see each others expressions. They’ve heard each others sneezes, hiccups, burps, farts, sobs and laughs. They see each others’ pimples; they know that they don’t often look as good as their favorite photos of themselves.

    At my second home, Dangerous Intersection, I live with many people I’ve never seen face-to-face. I’ve never heard the most of their voices. I love spending time with these co-inhabitants based on the way they express themselves in their words and by the images they choose to post. Such a narrow range of interaction, yet somehow powerful!

    We human animals have a tremendous capacity for imagination. We are capable of filling in the details we don’t really know about each other to the point where we think we know each other quite well. We might convince ourselves that we know each other well enough to share a commune in peace. After all, most of us have, at least a few times, disagreed with each other in a rather public way. But maybe we wouldn’t get along at all! How the DI writers would physically co-exist in a commune is something that could only be determined by throwing us into a bounded space and seeing what happens. We might be horribly disappointed!

    I suspect that it’s much easier to let the imagination fill in details than to really deal with each other idiosyncrasies (aka annoying habits!). In fact, I’ve sometimes thought of inviting the DI writers to a retreat somewhere. “It would be so much fun!” I think at first. But then, I’m not really so sure, because the atmosphere would be much thicker than the atmosphere at the blog. There would be much more than written words being traded. The atmosphere of a real gathering wouldn’t be sterile like a blog.

    As to how much we know each other, I would say very well, intellectually, but with numerous gaps to fill before I could say that I truly knew most of the writers well. Twenty years ago, if I told someone I was in a writers’ group, they would assume that I really knew each of the other people in the group. It would be assumed that we took walks and talked, that we knew each others’ families and that we brought each other soup when illness struck.

    Fast forward 20 years and see how things have changed. I play music with Artemis; I know her well enough to debate whether a G major 7th is the correct chord. I’ve met Chris once in person and we’ve chatted over the phone a couple of times. I first met Dan in person about 5 months ago; we also chatted on the phone a couple of times; we have friends in common. Devi and I run in some of the same circles and I can actually say I know her well—well enough that we’ve given each other pep talks when the world is getting us down. Ebonmuse and I tried to have a cup of coffee once in New York on short notice, but that fell through. So there’s a camaraderie based solely on the written word. I’ve spoken to Erika once or twice on the phone, though we’ve traded plenty of email; we bumped into each other on Myspace. Grumpy and I go way back—we met when I was a lawyer representing his company. We’ve often spoken on the phone, though most of our communication has been in email. Jake? Where art thou? I assume he’s in London practicing law, though we’ve never spoken. Jason and I are long-time friends, though this blog has been a wonderful chance to remind myself of the many reasons I enjoy knowing him. Mindy’s (Monkey) family and my family are constant companions, as you can probably tell from our writings. TMOL and I communicate mostly by email, with an occasional phone chat; he is a truly remarkable fellow who has a difficult time accepting compliments—we only see each other in person once a year or so. Sarah and I have visited in person a couple of times, but ours mostly an email relationship. I met Sujay through email. We’ve traded email regularly, more recently expressing our hopes that someday we can meet in India, where he lives. Tim is a high school buddy; we were two guys who didn’t really fit in at a school that churned out lots of Republicans. I “met” Vicki through email only two months ago; we followed up soon thereafter with a delightful phone call. Already, I can’t imagine this blog without Vicki. Yana and I have traded email a few times, though we have never spoken. My current intention regarding Yana is to encourage her to spin her second post. I’ve been working on that plan only through ESP lately. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the recurring commenters such as mellowing and thoughtful Ben and the wise and patient gatomjp, honorary members of the family, though I’ve never spoken to either. There are a dozen other personas who have played major parts in this community. I don’t mean to slight them by failing to mention each and every one.

    But there it is! Pretty amazing that that I have ongoing face-to-face contact with only three of the co-authors. Yet I feel that we have melded into an organic whole, at least somewhat. I suspect, too, that I know them much more than most of them know each other. How can that be, that we could form any sort of community with such meager personal contact? Meager, even though it consists of hundreds of emails that fly among us and hundreds of public posts and comments on this blog.

    All I know is that it does seems to work. DI is a community. It’s a family that one can “leave” and return to (as Erika did). It is a place where people do develop bonds with each other, such that they can disagree with each other without disliking each other in the least. It is a place where many of us come to visit, sometimes in the wee hours, to be reminded that there are other people grappling with similar issues, sometimes in similar ways.

    There’s no denying that our community bonds would be much stronger if only we knew each other like people traditionally knew each other. Given the difficult logistics, though, that isn’t likely to ever happen. That is not to say that our “community” is imaginary. No, it’s something, though it’s difficult to say exactly what it is in the lack of real traded smiles and frowns, pats on the back and hugs. You know . . . the sorts of things that real people do when they are part of the same physically community.

    I’ll end by pointing to a post I wrote awhile back. It pertained to Andy Clark’s idea of the “extended self,” the idea that we are each “out there” beyond the physical limitations of our skin and skull. Our selves don’t reside solely in our bodies. It must also be out there (beyond skin and skull) where our community exists. And, to address Erika’s provocative point, it is there that any of us would remain, at least for awhile, were we to crash into our keyboards, suddenly dead of heart attacks.

    Websites remind me of books, in that they can serve (among other functions) as a poor man’s version of heaven, of immortality.

  3. Ben says:

    "Mellowing" wow, I'm glowing. I guess that could be the "medicinal" herbs' effect on my personality.

    I wonder how many other people in the world/blogosphere/dailylife would find my tirades mellowing.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Mellowing in the good sense, Ben!

  5. Ben says:

    I wouldn't have it any other way.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    Hi Erika, I'm new here… I hope we can all find a balance in participating in online communities and in our own local communities through grassroots activism or just knowing our neighbors. One weird thought comes to mind : online it's easy to just walk away from a difficult encounter, whereas in real life it can be more difficult. But later the real-life conversation will be forgotten, whereas our words online can be preserved for years – I'm thinking of all the transcripts of internet forum comments by John Walker Lindh that were published and publicly dissected.

  7. Erika Price says:

    Ben, in response to your first comment: Wow. I never thought of it that way. But now that I do, even had I never returned to DI, I still would have had an intangible link to it, through the many ways writings on DI have influenced may way of thinking or expanded my knowledge. What an extremely cool idea.

    But this raises a new question, too: why do most people seem to fear the "becoming forgotten" part of death? Why do so many people feel a pull- and I have to admit that I do- to leave some kind of lasting imprint?

  8. Ben says:

    Well, I have a couple issues to clarify, please allow me some latitude, counselor. These are in no particular order…

    Mindy, (in case you thought I was…) I was not implying that being lazy/busy were the only reasons not to look toward science for everything, just examples which I am familiar with. Certainly each situation/brain/person is different, and things like poverty, location, and cultural upbringing do indeed affect education and spirituality. Or simply choosing to investigate other areas of life like many athletes who seem convinced that God's hand ultimately put the ball in the hoop/goal.

    Erich and Grumpy, it crossed my mind what the term "leader" means. You guys represent the term leader in certain ways. Being brave. Being respectful. I imagine Erich is occasionally too respectful (if that is even possible). Grumpy reminds me of a soldier, hehe ironic, but really. He probably just chose or was handed books instead of guns at a young age.

    Vicki, I get the feeling I am losing whatever battle we are/were having, if that is what I am calling it. It is hard to fight an enemy who offers roses. (see Lawrence of Arabia if you haven't already, it is well worth it).

    You are more convinced that you are correct than I am convinced that I am correct. My ideological position wavers like a sapling compared to your redwood. My intellect, experience, dwarfed. (Please strike that last line from the record, stenographer.) I refuse to give up yet though, I'm going down with the ship!

    Dan Klarmann and Jason seem more like deities than anything else, pillars of knowledge perhaps? Do not mean to leave anyone out…

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