Social networks can shape our opinions faster than you can say 'fugitive dentist'. A fresh idea at breakfast can become a meme by dinner. Saints are created on an hourly basis simply with the use of a word art app and an (often incorrectly attributed) quote. Most of us can name at least five new species of cute animal at the end of any given 24 hour period.
And yet, when it comes to death, the internet proverbially slows down and scratches its head.
It has become an acceptable thing to announce the death of a loved one on Facebook. And it makes sense. Facebook has been around long enough now to have woven itself into the fabric of our emotional existence. We announce births and weddings. We announce breakups and divorces. And in the chaotic times following the death of a loved one, it makes a grim kind of sense to let the world know in the easiest of ways-hitting 'post' once, rather than having to face endless phone calls and emails to people you don't know that well and would rather not speak to when you're at your most vulnerable.
But it's the reacting part that no one really knows how to handle. How do you respond to such an announcement? clearly you can't 'like' it. Do you send a private message to someone you don't know very well? After all, they don't know you very well either, but they have chosen to share a traumatic event with you. Putting something in the comments is a sure-fire way to ensure that you receive notifications for at least the next week when others do the same. But if there was ever an inappropriate time to turn off a post's notifications, it would be the one where you got a heartfelt reply from a bereaved person that you never actually read.
And yet skipping over a post about one of life's most visceral experiences, only to gleefully respond to the one below it about a bald hedgehog, seems thoughtless and even a little callous.
Then there are the unwitting 'didn't get the memo' posts. A few weeks back, after those awful pictures of Aylan Kurdi surfaced, my Facebook feed, inhabited mostly by left wing and often highly opinionated types, became almost exclusively and depressingly populated with that single, tragic image. All except the one or two people posting about their favourite smoothies and their fun birthday at a Tiki bar with hot tubs. My reaction to the latter was to find them inappropriate, the equivalent of someone showing up at a funeral wearing a clown costume.
But of course, they weren't. Those people weren't to know that a funeral was taking place on my feed. On someone else's feed, they may have been the most miserable people at the party. And just because they were daring to post about something cheerful, who was I to judge? For all I know, they could be doing more good in the world than the rest of us put together.
But death does feel like uncharted territory in the online world. Whilst we get our heads round almost every other change at breakneck speed, our online attitudes towards that most certain of all things remains divided. I was one of the people who spoke out against posting pictures of drowned refugees; not because I don't want the world to do more to help, but just because I have that-possibly old fashioned- notion of respect for the dead people's families. I sure as shit wouldn't have wanted that for my relatives. But in the days that followed, as I read account after account of people moved to help the refugee cause after seeing that picture, I was forced to concede that perhaps posting those pictures had been for the greater good.
Elsewhere, people have embraced their own deaths using an online presence, like Stephen Sutton, the teenager who used his own terminal illness to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust, tweeting the whole way through and facing his death in 2014 in the most courageous and public of ways. Many others have chosen to use social media to tweet about their own battles with terminal illnesses, or those of their loved ones. And whilst this would once have been considered distasteful, now it seems empowering.
Perhaps it's time for a whole new conversation about the way death is handled on social media. And if you still aren't convinced, here's a good reason to think about it; social media-ultimately functioning as a marketing tool- has no real use for death. It's one area where it can't proverbially touch us, outside of trying to flog a bit of life insurance and the odd funeral plan. And maybe, by reclaiming death in such a public manner, we are sticking our fingers up at a digital world that wants to monetise our every move and just this once, can't.