On Friday, Shane Warne, the legendary Australian leg spinner, died at 52 following a suspected heart attack. Every third person on my timeline grieved his death. Many mentioned how he had taken to Twitter just 12 hours earlier to mourn fellow cricketer Rod Marsh’s passing. It is now his last tweet to the world–a devastating reminder of how unpredictably cruel mortality can be.
Australian leg spinner Shane Warne’s last tweet
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 [which is still not over, btw], social media platforms are where we found out about the death of most people we admire or adore, invariably leading us to their last posts on Twitter or Instagram (if not our last online correspondence with them).
Many of us have unconsciously forged a relationship with the last digital footprints of the people we’ve lost. But there’s also a third wheel in this relationship: the algorithm.
In today’s (news)letter, I want to talk about how algorithms influence our relationship with the last digital footprints of people we cared about, and how that can help as well as hinder our grieving process at times.
This may not be an easy letter to read. It sure wasn’t easy to write. But I do hope you can stick around, even if only to find yourself in the questions of others that may or may not have any answers yet.
Famous Last Words–on social media
Rajesh Khanna in Anand (1971)
I’ve always found the last scene of the iconic Hindi film, Anand (1971), equal parts haunting and healing.
The titular character, played by the late Rajesh Khanna, is on his deathbed, waiting to say his final goodbye to his friend Bhaskar (Amitabh Bachchan) who has stepped out to fetch medicines for him. “Babumoshai,” he shouts one last time. It’s a Bangla term of endearment reserved for his main man who has not come back in time.
When Bhaskar returns, he is shattered to see an inanimate Anand. He exhorts him to speak. Unbeknownst to him, a tape recording of their recent chatter is rolling in the backdrop. As if on cue, Bhaskar’s desperate plea of “Talk to me” is met with Anand’s monologue from the tape:
“Babumoshai, zindagi aur maut uparwale ke haath hai jahanpanah. Usse na toh aap badal sakte hain na main. Hum sab toh rangmanch ki katputliyan hain, jinki dor uparwale ki ungliyon main bandhi hain. Kab, kaun, kaise uthega yeh koi nahi bata sakta hai. Ha, ha, ha.”
[My friend, matters of life and death are in the hands of God, neither of us can alter that. We are but mere puppets whose strings are held by God. Nobody can say whose time has come and when or how they shall depart.]
For a second, it makes you feel like Anand has come back from the dead, only to go back out in style. It’s not his cry for help before breathing his last but this pre-recorded sermon on the crude reality of life (and death) that we take away as his ‘famous last words’.
I cannot think of a better example to illustrate that our last words are often not what we proclaim, but what others perceive. And that is why, perhaps, our last digital footprints–a tweet, an Instagram post, or a WhatsApp message–seem to have become the equivalent of ‘famous last words’.
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.
We seek these last digital footprints of someone because it gives us an “illusion of permanence,” says Meghna Mukherjee, a psychoanalytical psychotherapist from Noida. “Seeing them ‘alive’ in those posts and pictures gives us the illusion that they cannot be gone.”
The permanence of online content provides a deep, real solace when put in juxtaposition with the impermanence of the owner of those posts, says clinical psychologist Qurat Bazaz.
It is what gets Anand’s Babumoshai to conclude, “Anand maraa nahin, Anand marte nahin.” [Anand is not dead, people like Anand can never die.]
Unlike Anand’s pre-recorded words though, 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 with a young founder’s last tweet just three months ago. I kept looking for the right words to describe that knot-in-my-stomach feeling every time someone replied to this person’s last tweet about hiring dilemmas. It went on for days after they were gone. 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 in response. 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 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. “It brings the shock of our own mortality to the foreground,” says Qurat who is also coming to terms with the sudden demise of two other highly-adored people from Indian Twitter.
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. As of now, 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.
Between April 2021 and now, I’ve received six such notifications from Facebook, whose single-biggest use case for people like us is that of a birthday calendar now. Every such notification stirs me up, fills me with regret (of not having made more memories with those people), makes me fear that soon more such regrets will pile on. But I cannot deny it also makes me revisit the few good memories I have with those people, often nudging me into reaching out to others who cared just as deeply for them.
That’s how Raja responded to that birthday alert, too. “I actually wrote to our old group of friends and reminded everyone of him. 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 Meghna her mother among people she may know and want to 'Add as friend'. 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 Qurat.
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 Kannagi. 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,” says Kannagi, “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.
As I update my legacy contact and hope for them to be half as good as Kannagi has been in keeping their loved one alive in people's memories, I wonder if all of us who are (sadly) so aware of the ephemeral nature of our lives, and who get so affected by the last digital footprints of others, also sometimes think before posting anything online: What if this is my last one?
Maybe asking that of ourselves will make us pause before we troll, cut down or shout at someone online.
Shephali chronicles how the internet is changing the way we live, and how our changing ways force tech companies to transform themselves. You can write to her on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin.
Edited by: Shalini Umachandran. Produced by: Nirmalya Dutta
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