Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Digital Will

A girl from my high school died. While crossing the street at the Jersey shore, she was struck and killed by a car.

She was one of those girls who had everything going for her. She was beautiful, compassionate, and talented. She was also a far better writer than I will ever be.

We were not friends, per se. She was two years younger than I. We shared one class together (if Choir is even considered a class). We also shared a handful of mutual friends. I did happen to see her a month or so before her untimely death. She came up to the ice cream store where I still worked, after a decade.

“Oh my God, you still work here?” she asked, echoing the words of so many other people I know.

“No, I just wear the uniform and scoop people ice cream for fun.”

She offered a sarcastic, yet cheery laugh, then said “I’m sorry.” It was unclear to me if she was apologetic for asking an obvious question or if she actually felt sorry for my life situation.

The rest of the conversation consisted merely of
her conveying which kind of ice cream she intended to eat, followed by me telling her how much said ice cream cost. Money/ice cream exchanges were made successfully, and she went on her way, saying “Nice seeing you!” I thought briefly about the fact that in high school I should have asked her out on a date. Then, I didn’t think about her until she died.

As I said, we were not friends. We were, however, Facebook friends.

Facebook was the way I found out about her death. I received a text from one of the only people from high school that I actually keep in contact with, asking if I had heard about Casey. Immediately, I whipped out my iPhone and jumped onto my Facebook App, ready to navigate to her profile.

The first page I am taken to when I log onto Facebook is my News Feed page. It basically shows me what my friends are up to, whether they updated their status, became friends with someone else I know, or broke up with their significant other. The most recent events are at the top. The News Feed page essentially forces you to be a stalker, coercing you to be in-the-know of the going-ons of your Facebook friends (or at least the ones who frequently update their status).

When I logged on to check out what Casey was up to, my News Feed page was inundated with status updates from countless people, saying “RIP Casey” or “OMG so in shock, I love you C.” The details of her passing were still unknown to me, but the knowledge of the event itself spread like wildfire. Newspapers would write about Casey’s death in the next day or so. Extended family would be called the next day, perhaps. But anyone who was a mere acquaintance, like myself, already knew.

This is the power of Facebook. This is the power of technology.

* * *

For my Senior Seminar in college, we had to do a “thesis.” I put quotations around the word because it really wasn’t a thesis. Our professor was both lazy and inept. The assignment itself fell more so under the category of “experiment.” More specifically, “middle school experiment.” See also: “dumb.” And: “a waste of time.”

I am referring to the same category of educational endeavors as what every fifth grader is inevitably forced to do when they are given a Dixie cup of dirt, a seed, a watering can, along with some real estate on a window ledge. Then, they are then asked to do something with these materials so that a plant is formed. MacGyvers in training.

They are told to make a hypothesis and after thirty days, they are forced to make a brainless write-up, which includes their original hypothesis, the procedure, variables, results, as well as an introduction and conclusion. The general lengths of such write-ups had to be three to five pages, but were almost always one and a half pages of double-spaced, run-on sentences accompanied by one and a half pages of giant, unnecessary charts, tables, and graphs. It generally resulted in something like this (random bullshitting and unnecessary charts and graphs omitted).

Introduction
Hello. I am going to plant a seed.

Hypothesis
It will grow into a plant.

Variables
Rainy days. Forgetting to water it. A faulty seed.

Procedure
The seed was put in dirt. The dirt was watered every day.

Results
The seed grew. Here is a chart that shows its height.
[Insert chart with an upward, diagonal line]

Conclusion
I was right. Bye.

This is the basic framework by which my senior “thesis” was based and the overall scrutiny that it underwent. The assignment was to analyze any aspect of technology by making any form of experiment that dealt with that technology, and making a similar write-up. My (joke of a) “thesis” was aimed to “reveal how completely connected people are to Internet social networks and to show that people opt to use technology to contact each other rather than face-to-face communication.”

To do this, I simply changed my Facebook status to read, “Packing up and moving out on Friday. Please stop by and say goodbye.” I left this as my status for 24 hours, during which time I stayed in my room (mostly) and recorded who contacted me and the method that they used (phone, instant messaging, Facebook, etc.). I did not respond to anyone until after the 24 hour period was over (except for the people who physically came to me or incessantly called, to whom I divulged the truth, swearing them to secrecy).

When all was said and done, 89% of the people who contacted me did so through some form of text-based technology (text messaging, Facebook messaging or wall posts, or instant messaging).
For those of you who don’t know, 89% is quite a large portion.
Here, let me show you:



Hopefully that makes things more clear. I find it to be a visually stunning representation of the facts. It definitely contributed to me getting an B+. Although, I would have probably gotten an A if I had included this:



Or this:



The fact of the matter is that only a handful of people actually came to my room or called me.

In my hypothesis, I predicted that 90% of the people would contact me through some form of text-based technology rather than interpersonal communication. What I did not predict was the volume of people who would actually make some attempt to contact me, whether to say goodbye, to inquire as to whether or not I got kicked out of school, or distrustingly wondering if I was pulling a prank. I admit that it felt good to have so many people concerned about me. But it is also somewhat disconcerting to witness how incredibly quickly such news spreads. I received my first instant message two minutes after changing my status. At the end of the 24-hour period, it had become common knowledge that I had been kicked out of school, with the most popular reason being that I had gotten into a fight with the professor who had given this very assignment and for whom my distaste was fairly well known.

It is a frightening notion that information can spread at such a rapid pace and with such waning accuracy. Wildfires are hard to put out once they start spreading.

But that is what the world has become. Connected. Choosing to live in it makes life much easier, but it also adds unseen responsibilities and unique situations that Casey’s death made me begin to consider.

* * *

Something that struck me was the fact that countless people had written on Casey’s Facebook wall with personal messages written directly to her. “Casey, I can’t believe it, I am so sorry,” etc. As a Christian, I am more apt to direct such messages to friends and relatives who have died through quiet reflection and prayer, not via Facebook wall posts for the public to see. I do understand the idea of memorializing loved ones, but there is something about this form of direct-condolences to the deceased that just feels misplaced and macabre.

I then began to wonder what would happen to my Facebook account when I die; how long would it survive me? More importantly, what would I want to happen to it when I die?

I quickly came to the conclusion that I would want it to be closed and/or destroyed immediately, whichever is most realistically possible. Here’s why: I simply don’t want a virtual dossier that is readily available to a world that I am no longer a part of. I am sure that there are pictures of me that one could argue could be incriminating. I am also sure that some of my (guy) friends have written wall posts that one who doesn’t understand our humor could argue makes me appear to be gay (Think: “I can’t wait to come to your beach house for your birthday and snuggle”). I am also sure that some of my favorite bands, movies, and television shows will be utterly unpopular in a few years time (See: 3 Doors Down, Big Brother, Old School). There will be nobody to defend those incriminating pictures, my (very hetero) sexuality, or my taste in media. The fact of the matter is, I don’t want my life to be digitally stuck in time. I don’t want my profile to remain a stagnant fixture of dullness, with the prospect of obtaining new friends an impossibility due to the inactivity on my end of the internet. I’d rather it disappear entirely, forcing all of my friends and loved ones to go back to their own memory banks when thinking of me, which I am certain will paint me as a much cooler person.

I also began wondering what would happen to my poker accounts. While I regularly cash money out of those accounts, I still have thousands of dollars in there. If I were to suddenly die, I am sure that my parents would be able to get all of the money out of my bank accounts, but I don’t foresee them knowing the names of the sites that I play on, let alone my usernames, passwords and pin numbers. On top of all that is the fact that I do a great deal of poker staking online. People from around the world stake me, paying for my buy-ins to some of the bigger tournaments by literally transferring me the money. If by some miracle my loved ones were able to figure out my usernames and then guess the pins and passwords in order to obtain my poker funds, how would they know to send my backers their rightful funds?

I also considered what would happen if there was some sort of mystery surrounding my death. What if I am murdered, and the police need to hack into my computer in order to see with whom I had been chatting with online so they could be clued in on possible suspects? Although my browsing history is generally tame, I wouldn’t be completely against the notion of a close friend going in and clearing it out. Additionally, I have a Microsoft Word document saved to my Desktop, where I write ideas. It is kind of a stream of consciousness type of thing. I quickly jot down ideas and/or quotes that I envision a fabricated character speaking. The problem I have is if I write down an idea for a girl, say, being interested in a guy, I can’t just quickly write down what is going on in her head, I have to put “she said” or “she thought” afterwards, because I am afraid that if I die, someone is going to go into my computer, read the thing, and think I had some homosexual thoughts. Here’s an example, straight from that document: “‘He was zoning out until a commercial came on that asked ‘hemorrhoidal discomfort?’ and his head snapped up. I guess that’s the moment where I knew he wasn’t the one,’ [she said].” Or, perhaps, something that runs through the head of a fictitious murderer: “My lip quivered as I imagined her blood pouring from her throat to the ground.” These are not quotes that I want people to assume came from my diary.

And then I thought about you, faithful Youngman Brown reader. How would you know that I had died? How would you know that I hadn’t abandoned you? How would you know to stop clicking “Refresh,” in the hopes that a new update would suddenly appear, and that you could once again breathe?

And that is when I realized that I need a Digital Will. Technology’s capabilities that allow us to have a digital personality equipped with digital responsibilities obligate us to tie up the loose ends when we die. We essentially need a caretaker who has all of our pertinent digital information.

* * *

Yesterday, I handed my father a manila envelope, with all of my usernames and passwords to all of my various bank and poker accounts. I also gave him instructions on how to log onto my staking site to find out who to transfer funds to. I also gave him the password to give my blog one final update saying that I died. Morbid, I know, but after posting this piece, how could I not?

I also handed my best friend a manila envelope with the passwords to my social networking sites and instructions on what to do. Instead of closing my Facebook account completely, I decided that the better option would be to clear out all of my personal information and photos, except for one in which I look strikingly handsome. Then, he is going to change my status to “Dead.”

My hypothesis is that 90% will try to contact me through a digital means, such as my Facebook wall, while the other 10% will use some alternative means, such as a séance.

-Youngman Brown

Learn more about Casey and donate to the Casey Feldman Memorial Foundation at CaseyFeldman.com.

3 comments:

  1. Good Youngman Brown,

    This girl's passing obviously made an impact on you in probably a way you did not initially think would occur. Despite its opening somber tone, there were sentences that did make me laugh, which is what I enjoy most about your blog entries. I think that probably her passing touched upon something that you did not ponder a lot of up until now: your own mortality. You have taken a responsible approach to handling your affairs going forward. As you have done so you should make a mental check that it is done and put it on the shelf. The wonderment of life and all that has to offer should be your focus.

    I think you raise an interesting point about how one's legacy should be left on the internet. You may have touched on a million dollar idea. I, for one, do not look to publicize my life for all to see. I do not participate in sites such as Facebook, MySpace, or any other social networking site that gives up to the minute info on my daily routine. I don't care for people that I don't have a personal relationship with to know my business. Perhaps it is just a generational thing but I would be one of the 11% that would say goodbye in person.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I guess I don't trust anyone enough for all of that. Interesting post, though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. M...goodyoungman brown first read of your blog and it's fantastic. Anyway haven't seen you in awhile buddy i'll be in touch soon. Probably via text or facebook.

    ReplyDelete

When you comment, I vibrate.