On Friday, Shane Warne, the legendary Australian leg spinner, died at 52 following a suspected heart attack. Grieving fans worldwide mentioned how he had taken to Twitter just 12 hours earlier to mourn fellow cricketer Rod Marsh's passing. Unfortunately, it is now his last tweet to the world–a devastating reminder of how unpredictably cruel mortality can be.
Death has hit us too hard, too often in the last two years. As we spent most of our lives on the internet during the pandemic, social media platforms are often where we find out about the death of people we admire or adore. This, in turn, leads us to their last posts on Twitter or Instagram (if not our last online correspondence with them). Often, someone's last digital footprints–a tweet, an Instagram post, or a WhatsApp message–become the equivalent of "famous last words."
Many of us have unconsciously forged a relationship with the last digital footprints of the people we've lost. Saral, a 27-year-old software engineer who goes by @olrawnder on Twitter, often "stalks the profile" of a Twitter friend she lost last year. She looks for one-on-one interactions with them and reposts some of the memories onto her account. It's her way of getting closure, she says.
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Meghna Mukherjee, a psychoanalytical psychotherapist from Noida, says that seeking these last digital footprints of someone gives us an illusion of permanence. "Seeing them 'alive' in those posts and pictures give us the illusion that they cannot be gone," she says. Clinical psychologist Qurat Bazaz adds that the permanence of online content provides a deep, real solace when put in juxtaposition with the impermanence of the owner of those posts.
But there's also a third wheel in this relationship: the algorithm. Psychologists say that algorithms of social media platforms can both help as well as hinder our grieving process.
Unlike famous last words in the physical realm, our last digital footprints are not frozen in time. You see people replying to these last tweets with condolence messages. The platform's algorithm, blissfully unaware of the situation, brings the initial tweet up on mutual followers' timelines, who often end up engaging with the content in the original post, not knowing that the person is no more... until someone in the reply trail breaks it to them. As of 5 am on Saturday, you could still see a gradient circle around Shane Warne's display picture on Instagram, suggestive of an active Story–a screenshot of his last tweet–and perhaps an active life.
Many in the Indian startup and tech community saw this play out just three months ago when someone or the other kept replying to a young founder's last tweet about hiring dilemmas. It went on for days after they were gone. In response, a consumer-tech company they had worked with put out a tribute, only to be greeted with a random user's "[you have the] worst service ever" tweet. Anti-vaxxers quote-tweeted an old tweet of the deceased to further their propaganda.
On the internet, even the dead cannot escape bots and trolls. "[It's like] once their words are embalmed on the net, people are never really dead," says Tanmoy Goswami, founding editor of Sanity by Tanmoy, an independent platform that focused on the politics, economics, and culture of mental health. Incidents like these often raise overwhelming questions: "Do you unfollow them? Do you continue following them? Nobody teaches us the grammar of online grief."
Even more disturbing is finding out about someone's death through social media after you have seen a post in which they seemed to be having fun just the previous day, say psychologist Bazaz. "It brings the shock of our own mortality to the foreground." If someone has lost people but not had the chance to grieve them properly, the last digital footprints [of the deceased] resurfacing on their timelines can be triggering, she adds. "It can also result in a depressive phase. For a lot of people, therefore, avoiding such posts helps."
The platforms, however, are not equipped to help us with avoidance yet. Twitter does not have an option to memorialise someone's account but seems to be working on it. Facebook allows you to have a 'legacy contact', and Instagram allows for memorialising an account. But these aren't very popular or widely known features, except for when they are in the news for entirely different reasons. In January, Bangladeshi author in exile, Taslima Nasreen, found her Facebook account memorialised in the aftermath of a targeted cyberattack in which multiple people falsely reported to the platform that she was no more, leading to Facebook "declaring her dead" twice in two days.
Sometime before the pandemic, Raja Ganapathy, a seasoned marketing professional, got a Facebook notification to wish an old friend on his birthday, a friend who had passed away just a few months prior. His heart lurched instantly, followed by a bout of anger at the platform for not preventing such notifications, eventually culminating in a submission that it was futile to expect the algorithm to fix this to perfection.
However, the incident nudged Ganapathy to reach out to a set of friends who cared just as deeply for his pal. "We shared a bunch of messages reminiscing about our time together. I ended up feeling not so bad about the notification after all."
Facebook's algorithm keeps showing psychotherapist Mukherjee her mother, among people she may know and want to 'Add as friend'. Except, her mother is no more. "She never added me while she was around, and now I can never 'add her'. But seeing her account pop up in my feed makes me feel good because she has such a lively display picture." For someone else, this could be triggering, she adds, but in her case, it is healing.
In certain circumstances and for some people, social media can aid the process of grieving, too. "When we are grieving in a physical space, we are not able to narrate stories of that person in the way we can on Twitter. It makes room for solidarity," says Bazaz.
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Kannagi Desai has felt this solidarity over the last eight months, ever since she decided to keep her deceased father, Anaggh Desai, alive in the memory of his thousands of followers across Twitter and Instagram. @anaggh, or "God-ji" as the executive business coach was fondly called in his Twitter circle, "was someone who really put his life and the things he loved out there," says Desai. She tries to do just that by posting pictures of the things he loved [from his social accounts], pictures he would have loved to share with the world. Every other post has at least one person commenting about how happy they feel to see that Anaggh continues to show up on their timelines. "This thing that I'm doing, it feels like an act of God, and by that, I mean the God-ji of Twitter." It's not something they ever spoke about when he was around. "But he would have wanted it, I know," she says.
A version of this article first appeared in the Mint newsletter