When writer and publisher Sunil Poolani’s birthday came around this year, I visited his Facebook page, just to check. Last year, Poolani’s page was full of birthday messages from ‘friends’, none of whom seemed to know that Poolani had died a few years ago. I never knew Poolani in person but I had spoken to him on the phone a few times and written for him and as one does nowadays, we became Facebook ‘friends’.
There was something incredibly creepy about all these jolly birthday messages to a person who had died. Eventually, those who knew told those who didn’t and the messages for Poolani dried up. I think some newspaper did an article as well. This year, there were no birthday messages as friends both real and virtual appeared to have got the message. And after his birthday announcement appeared on my Facebook page, I did what I was too squeamish to do when I heard he had died — I ‘unfriended’ him.
Now the same problem has crept up again, this time with a former colleague who I worked with two decades ago. He and I had lost touch until he got in touch via twitter and then we connected on Facebook as well. I heard on Monday that he had died in a motorcycle accident. In the evening I got a call asking me if I knew any details about him or his family. I was ashamed to say that I didn’t. I knew some of his political thoughts and ideas, I had read some of his blogs, I knew he had embarked on his own discovery of India but I did not know anything about his loved ones.
This is the shame of relationships built in the social media. Not everyone who you find you have so much in common with are necessarily people who you want to meet face to face. An argument or a few shared clever quips a day are enough to build a common meeting ground. On Facebook you may share a little more but it does not amount to much — as Poolani’s case showed. And yet, sometimes the anonymity is its own redeeming feature — an ideal escape route.
In fact with the former colleague who just died, the person who called me asking if I knew his family had his own story to tell. According to Prakash (not his real name), Peter —let’s call him that — refused a Facebook friendship with Prakash although they met on Twitter and shared comments on other people’s pages. The reason was a very typical social media conundrum. Peter didn’t want to be traced by a cousin who Prakash was friends with on Facebook.
Perhaps then, social media is a tool to keep at bay as much as it is to seek out. Unfortunately, this coyness on Peter’s part did not help when Prakash was trying to find Peter’s relatives to ensure they were informed about his accident.
I haven’t been able to either ‘unfriend’ Peter on Facebook or unfollow him on Twitter. I posted about him on both but I don’t know his family to offer my condolences. I feel foolish going to his Facebook page and announcing his death since somehow it needs official sanction to do that. Although do-good busybodies have their uses, I am not one of them. It’s a sort of limbo I find myself in and that’s a comment Peter would have been very sharp about because he liked you to be exact and sure of yourself in your comments or else face his sarcastic wrath.
The way social media has intruded into our lives, it means we need a well-articulated protocol to deal with finalities. Perhaps family members can no longer just insert ads in newspapers. They must post messages on social media informing “friends” and “followers” what has happened. Maybe we have to leave behind our passwords with our wills so that our other lifers can be informed about our passing. Maybe things which were created with very young people in mind don’t always take into account the vagaries of life and the abruptness of death...
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona