The shock of learning my internet friend had died was more confusion than anything else — like, that doesn’t make any sense?
Once it sublimated into a permeating, low-level sadness, the first thing I did was go back and read our email threads. The pattern was familiar to most of the back-and-forths I’ve had with many internet friends for years: their incisive, thoughtful, witty paragraphs; my rambling, overreaching, too-long drivel. As I kept reading, though, I was surprised to see their replies did not shrink quickly to terse sentences designed to end the thread. The word count was about even on either side, and our discussion continued until we both felt we’d said enough. I didn’t hate myself at the end of it. It reminded me of a satisfying lunch date and made me think that but for lack of proximity, we might have been friends IRL.
This strange new grief is hard to describe and still slightly taboo. I didn’t know this person in real life; I’d never met them. But I was not alone among their internet friends in feeling genuine loss at the news. It feels unreasonable, out of proportion, even intrusive, considering how bereft those that knew this person would be feeling. What right do I have to mourn this person with whom I’d only shared occasional lines and images on a screen?
Privacy is a huge elephant in the room in the internet age (or at least it was, until the elephant appeared before the US Senate). It’s usually spoken about in terms of loss — as in, we are losing our privacy with every social media post. But I’d suggest the ledger is balanced somewhat. Through this person’s Twitter and Facebook, through the posts they made and the likes and interests pushed at me by the apps on their behalf, I got a haphazardly curated window into their psyche. I know what art they loved, and loved to hate. I have a rough overall picture of their politics that is extremely detailed in a few areas. I can see the quiz they favourited to complete later, which they probably never got round to. This is completely different from the way I know people I’ve looked in the eye, who are made up in my head of verbal tics and distinctive laughter and that thing they did for me that one time.
Still, I care for both sets of people, my in-person friends and my internet friends. Some friends have transitioned back and forth across these categories. The line is not clearly marked.
The broader availability of grief is therefore one of the side effects of our increasingly public existence. It’s as simple as having more people to care about, and having more people to care about other people with. The outpouring of emotion about this person has been moving in the same way as a funeral: sadness at the person lost, comradeship and community at sharing feelings and memories with a group. It’s similar, if personal in a different way, when a celebrity (e.g. David Bowie) dies. A collective howl, more physical than intellectual.
I’ve become quite cynical about my Twitter feed. That person’s trying to go viral. That person’s trolling. That person’s scoring points for a tangentially related agenda. Well, this death has jolted me right out of that. This was a real person, and I love that they were a small part of my life, and I can’t believe they’re gone.