Monday, February 15, 2010

Facebook Memorials Revisited

In a brilliant essay in this week's The New York Review of Books, "In the World of Facebook,"

Charles Peterson considers the class dimension of Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. He charts the increasing "suburbanization" of Facebook, which began as an on line micro gated community in a Harvard dorm room and which has retained qualities akin to a standardized, highly regulated middle class suburban housing development, characterized by regularized layout, predictable presentations of self, a repressed sense of alienation from one's interlocutors, and multiple forms of soft surveillance. This he contrasts to MySpace's "more permissive atmosphere and working class aesthetic." Peterson characterizes Facebook's founder, Zuckerberg, as "the Robert Moses of the Internet, bring severe order to a chaotic millieu."

Although Petersen doesn't discuss memorial sites on Facebook, or Foucault for that matter, his insights could presumably be extended to the subtle disciplining of mourning and memorialization on line. My graduate student Alicia Watkins has written insightfully on how Facebook manages memorial pages for its dead members. They tend to be strictly regulated, limited to those who were already "friends" at the time of the person's death. Building on Petersen's landscape analogy, one might view these sites as akin to well manicured suburban cemetery plots, in which all signs of irregular memorial action (overly large bouquets or handmade signs) are quickly removed.

A puzzling exception (that might "prove the rule) would seem to be the Facebook profile page on ten year old Holocaust victim Henio Zytomirski, (born 1933l died in Majdanek) in which the dead child had been "friended" by thousands of well wishers. Since my January 23 post about this page, the AP ran an excellent news story (by MONIKA SCISLOWSKA and VANESSA GERA) on the site, in which several scholars, including me, are quoted:

The story seem to been picked up by scores of news sites around the world. Within hours of the story's posting on February 4, however, the Henio Facebook site disappeared. One presumes it was taken down by Facebook, since, strictly speaking the policy holds that dead persons cannot have active profiles. (They can however have "fan" pages or memorialized pages). Yet by February 6 Henio's Facebook page was once again active. As of this morning Henio has 4,985 "friends". The postings on the wall once again mix the kitschy, the banal, and the moving, many of them in accordance with Facebook's pre-selected options: He has been "hit with delicious chocolate pudding" and invited to throw the food back, and sent Valentine's Gifts. (Another "friend" cautions those who would sent Valentine's gifts to first read the wikipedia account of the Strasbourg pogrom on Feb 14, 1349, in which hundreds of Jews were killed.) [I should note the insightful point by anthropologist Joy Sather-Wagstaff, quoted in the AP story, that these gifts are comparable to offerings left by the bereaved at gravesites or memorials.] Another friend posts, "Little Henio, I hope there is an afterlife where you get to enjoy all the things the rest of us take for granted."

The earlier history of Henio's wall, prior to the February 6 reappearance, appears to have been deleted.

I am unsure of the 'back story' behind the temporary disappearance and reinstitution of the Henio profile page. Was there a popular groundswell by Henio's supporters, pressuring Facebook to restore the site? Or did the page's organizers themselves temporarily remove it following the AP story's publicity, and then restore it?

Such are the mysteries of memorialization on line. I'm not sure if this recent history is entirely consistent with Petersen's model of Facebook as consistent with top-down disciplinary urban/suburban planning. It would seem that memorial on line spaces to some extent open up breaches in the conventional order of things, perhaps allowing for a healthy re-invigoration of chaos, imagination, and cultural creativity.


bryce said...

Perhaps you can boil down the whole question being one of presence- what is it? how does it manifest itself online? The interesting thing to be asked is how the facebook page functions in relation to the dead- is it a medium? Perhaps Peirce could help us on this question... indexical or iconic connection? is the account thought of as part of the person and thus communications 'are' to them? or is it something that they check in the afterlife and communications 'go' to them? are they tombstones or are they photos? So many good questions for such a fascinating topic!

Mark Auslander said...

Interesting. As Barthes suggests, the distinction between tombstones and photographs is a murky one (and of course there are instances in which photographs are embedded in tombstones). Presumably, most of those who post messages to Henio on Facebook would assert that they don't actively "believe" he is reading the posts, in a literal sense, but many might share a general sense that doing such actions is still meaningful. We are entering into realms in which "belief" in a formal sense doesn't get us far in appreciating people's ritual practice and inchoate cosmological sensibilities.

By the way, I am told that Facebook has asserted that the disappearance of the Henio site was an "accident" as they tried to transition the site from a profile to a page. One still suspects a back story: any insights, anyone?

mithun said...

Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

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