A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine died. His death was immediately preceded by a short hospitalization - he lost consciousness fairly quickly after admitting himself to the hospital for his illness. His final weeks contained quite a narrative: the health crisis, the coma, the changing levels of organ and brain function, the determination that death was inevitable, the final visits, and, finally, his passing.
This young man's death was exceptional in a number of ways, as was he during his life. One part of the experience I come back to, over and over, in my mind is the way that his extended community, and the extended communities of the numerous members of his incredible extended family, witnessed and participated in his final weeks through Facebook.
I'm not even going to begin to tackle the larger subject of communication technologies here. There is way too much to say, and much of it I don't find particularly interesting to be perfectly honest.
Furthermore, Facebook is the only thing of its kind (meaning any form of electronic communication or community other than paleolithic email and listservs) in which I've participated. So I'm not actually qualified to talk about any other new forms of communications. Not that utter lack of experience has prevented me from expounding in the past.
Something that has struck me about Facebook, and that I say in its defense when Luddites (and even some techies) call it out as a time-waster, is that it provides us with the opportunity to hang out.
I did a LOT of hanging out in my 20's. Spending time with friends. Doing stuff, doing nothing. Running errands together, making art together, listening to music together. Hanging out.
I don't do so much hanging out anymore. My time has shifted from my friends to my family. I'm busy. I have young kids. There just isn't that much down time in my life, and there is less opportunity to casually and frequently gather in a group or to just stop by someone's house.
Enter Facebook. I pretty quickly got past the thrill of locating people from elementary school and looking at humiliating and hilarious old photos, and now Facebook has settled into a comfortable, functional role in my life. At its best, it is a place - yes, an electronic place, but a place nonetheless - where I do get to spend smallish, unstructured, and unscheduled amounts of time sort of hanging out with my friends. Other people stop by while we're hanging out, commenting on whatever it is we're talking about, and it is frequently really fun. We make jokes, we riff off of each other's jokes. We kvetch, we sympathize with each other's kvetching.
I don't know exactly how people of other ages experience Facebook - I'm particularly mystified by the Facebooking habits of those who are still young enough to have little better to do than to hang out - but for me, this communal space - my own contemporary version of a quad or dorm lounge or friendly pot dealer's house - is really sweet and familiar.
As this acquaintance of mine was dying, his brother posted very frequent and intimate updates on his condition, and, eventually, photos of the hospital gathering the day before his death, on Facebook. As we followed these events and the experiences of his family, it was as if we were all getting to gather in the kitchen, or to get the important news from someone else about what was happening somewhere else. We got to be there in some bizarre, modern way, and to simply witness, regardless of how busy and far away we were.
Obviously none of this was a replacement for actually being there. That was done by others - those closer in spirit and in body to the family and the events. Plenty were bringing food and scheduling hospital shifts. No doubt Facebook joined forces with its ancient ancestors - email and telephones - to help with scheduling and coordination. I was not on the inner circle, not even close, so I did not go to the hospital or schedule meal deliveries or even bring food. But my own need to know was satisfied, my need to watch over this family and to be there in some way.
I thought a lot about sitting shiva during that time, the time that we looked to notes and updates frequently as illness progressed and death came. It was as if I was able to walk past the family's house, to be satisfied that it was full of loving bodies, to show my face at their door - however briefly - so that my love and support could be delivered. I was thankful that Facebook gave me the means to be able to stop by, and to sit silently with them.