By Danny Bultitude
Content Warning: Suicide, cruelty, distressing themes, offensive language,
As this essay deals with difficult subject matter and quotes unnamed Facebook and Instagram users, I would like to make a note that my approach was informed by The Ethics of Internet Research by Heidi Mckee and James Porter regarding consent and ethical responsibilities surrounding my research and writing.
We met once, outside the supermarket some autumn evening, but I reckon you’ve forgotten. Durry-mouthed, you started a conversation with me. Your sneakers oversized and peeling, eyes heavily bagged, grin lively and true. Being underage, you had to wait outside while your older friends bought alcohol for a party that night. I was nineteen, waiting outside for my mum to pick me up after uni.
You recently had a son with a friend of mine and angrily explained how her new boyfriend was closing you out of the child’s life. Largely disinterested, I nodded and smiled along. The least amount of effort I could put into the conversation without seeming rude. Nothing important was said.
Eventually, your friends emerged from the supermarket carrying three boxes of cheap beer and you left me with a parting backslap. I waved, watching you and your friends bundle into the scabby Honda and speed off.
In a matter of months you died in that very same car. You and the others. A monumental, devastating crash that left the earth shivering.
I first heard the news through Facebook posts written by our mutual friends, but I didn’t recognise you. It felt like some story from another continent, a distant tragedy involving strangers. One of the only things I remember from that first day was sneering at the job title you listed on your profile: “Fucking at Your Mum’s Bed.” A cruel bit of comedy. The last job you’d ever have.
Only on the first anniversary of your passing did I understand, did I overlap the face outside the supermarket with that in the wreckage. That girl we both knew posted a photo of her son sleeping beside a wooden box containing daddy, tagging the ashes with your name.
Instantly, the countless posts over the last year affected me differently. Only then I learnt your name, having never thought to ask when we first met. Mark. Oh, Mark. Your shape gained weight, became embodied, more than a profile picture, more than a stranger.
I returned to your profile and felt utterly sick when realising how deep my disinterest had run.
“Accept | Delete” was written where “Add Friend” normally stood. At some point before your untimely death, only sixteen years old, you sent me a friend request. I’d left it ignored and unopened for all this time.
Save the loss of pets and grandparents, the many friends whose suicide attempts have proven unsuccessful, you are the closest I have come to losing a friend, dear Mark, and it’s as close as the poles of the earth.
Through nothing more than luck and privilege, most of my encounters with death have been digital. Friends of friends, people I’ve never actively spoken to, those I’ve heard mention of in rumour or anecdote. Dozens upon dozens piled up in my feed. A mass grave.
Just like you, they die before reaching twenty. Some in accidents, others from illness, most of suicide. Lives and deaths witnessed through the porthole of social media; grief reduced to the crying yellow visage of an emoji. Trapped behind a monitor, a phone screen, everything flattens out, becoming information, content, another thing to share.
Mark was not your name, as you well know. Despite our momentary meeting, I am a stranger to you, unable to write a tell-all on your remarkable, once-living soul. To every person mentioned in this essay, I am a trespasser on their profiles, an unfamiliar footprint on their grave.
In many ways, writing this is unethical, but every name has been changed, every quote made untraceable, and everything presented is publicly accessible. Our digital post-life can be altered by anyone online, that land where respect is unnecessary, where conduct is unmediated.
I should not be able to write this, but I am.
Your profile was the first that demonstrated how my peers engage with death over the internet and it left me uneasy. There’s such formal expectation we carry when it comes to mourning. Principles born from funeral services, obituaries, personal prayers. Without being taught, we use a near-objectivity of expression: favouring statements of general sadness, celebrating one’s character shown in life, delineating the weight of their absence. Online, this isn’t the case.
In tribute posts from their friends, dead kids are named “over aggressive cunt,” “lil ghetto boy,” “ballsack,” “cheeky cunt,” “fucking dick,” “shit talker,” “bitch,” and numerous racist and homophobic slurs I won’t type out. A post made on your eighteenth birthday, Mark, called you a “ratchet little fucker” for not returning your friend's shoes before the crash. Another reads “Fuck your ugly <3” and nothing else.
The anecdotes shared rarely fare better, favouring excitement and shock over the optimistic or sweet. Constant blurry recollections of drunken antics, experiences shared after “20 bong hits” or “hittin the rock,” all accompanied with photos of the parties in question, glass pipe in hand. Many are vague and disquieting, mention they have “too much memories n majority are fkedddd uppp” or that “some of the shit we got up to… we woulda been locked up for sure.”
A friend recalls spending “3 whole hours trying to convince a certain gal” to date you, while another tallies up all the different chicks you hooked up with on a single night. Many more describe altercations and fights, laying out stories of how the deceased kicked the asses of some would-be burglars, stepped out a couple of mobsters in the mall, or smashed a little kid who bullied their younger sister. There is one on your page which celebrates the time you “smacked a cop in the face” for unfairly pulling you over, littered with love reacts. I bet the pig deserved it, Mark.
Maybe it’s judgemental, oversensitive, but I get upset imagining your family reading the memories your friends have selected, the names they call you. Must be strange to watch your child’s life and death painted in such colours. I’d hate it if my parents learnt about all the shit I got up to through public Facebook posts left after dying so young. I hope your family knew of these exploits already: never to lie awake seeking your explanation, wishing they could have talked with you about it. I hope they were not burdened further.
Rather sweetly, many friends visualise how you’d act in heaven, in thug’s mansion, in bud’s paradise. Most hope you’re still “having a fat blaze” up there, making certain you “party hard, smoke even harder” and “have a packed cone and lighter” waiting for them when they die. Many of my other dead mutual friends get messages like yours, prayers that they’re still drowning themselves in alcohol, tearing shit up, killing it with the dead chicks up there.
One of the many Porirua boys who killed themselves, I think you actually knew him, received a bunch of posts saying ‘down’ instead of ‘up.’ “Ud have a nut if I said HEAVEN aye” somebody wrote, receiving unanimous support in the comments, speaking of his descent to hell with affection. Another post made the day after his death specifies that she wouldn’t “do heartfelt shit cause that aint you,” instead ending her post by saying he “shoulda died of aids lol.”
As an outsider like myself, it’s difficult to criticise or praise. None of these expressions of grief would bother me if uttered between friends, between people who know the full context and understand how they’d want to be remembered.
I’ve seen footage of the real-life memorials: burnout and drift tributes, tattoos of weed leaves with dates printed beneath, walls and car bonnets graffitied in their honour. It’s thoughtful and moving, sweet and personal.
But when reading these posts on the public page of someone I don’t know, I catch myself wincing.
Two hours after sharing a heartfelt tribute to her dear, dead father on the Porirua Facebook group, she receives a comment from a stranger: “Ol scratchie balls… rip.” Within minutes, another man imitates: “Ol uncle jim ol scratch the balls and sniff guy.”
Jim ran a popular takeaway store for decades and became a local legend, known for his good humour and big servings, evidenced by the 1200 likes this commemoration receives. Yet his death garners little respect. I cringe imagining his daughter receiving these notifications while mourning, but I scroll through the post silently, all too accustomed.
Among others, a particularly grim comment screams in all-caps, desperate to be noticed:
“ONLY FISH N CHIP SHOP U CAN GO AND HIS WIFE SERVES U WIT BLACK EYES LEGEND.”
Social media lacks the level of interactivity needed for us to deal with something as significant and intimate as death. Liking, reacting, using emojis, leaving comments: all are ill equipped to capture anything beyond ‘having witnessed.’ An acquaintance of my father posted his suicide note online, not content with paper and pen in this age. Several of his friends who were still learning English as a second language innocently liked the post, unaware of its meaning.
It’s a symptom of this immediacy, this accessibility, this lack of censorship or etiquette. There is no reason to question your engagement. Every time you think of a passed friend, you can write a status update about the thought, tag the dead profile, and post. Name of the deceased underlined, bolded, differently coloured, wrenched from its grave. In some way or another, their disused phone will receive this notification, even if it never lights up or sounds a chime. Perhaps the phone was sold, perhaps it sits as a grim keepsake in a family drawer. I know yours shattered in the crash, Mark.
Not only do these posts interact with the ghostly phone, they appear on the timeline of all those who follow the deceased, sending out notifications that Your Dead Friend was tagged in a new post. For that split second, one may forget they’re gone, believing the post comes from the dead themselves. Occasionally, I see messages from absolute strangers on my feed, solely because they continue to write eulogies to a corpse we both friended.
Legions of people include the dead in their generic engagements on social media too: tagging the deceased in push-up challenges or copy-paste chain messages, sharing memes they find funny, posting information about updates to video games they once played, linking fundraisers for sporting tournaments to their profile. If you scroll far enough, this is how it was when they were breathing too. Just as much banal engagement.
Some acknowledge the death: photos of the deceased edited to include wings and a halo, inspirational Tupac quotes about loss, a JPEG of a beer bottle captioned “you would enjoy this,” selfies taken while crying, while beside the grave, while visiting the location of the fatal accident.
People reveal things about the dead, sharing private messages that were meant to remain private. One of my friends screenshotted a message that a newly-dead boy sent her years before, in which he celebrated the sexiness of her legs. Gave him permission to look at them whenever he wants now that he’s in Heaven.
Another post destabilised the persona of masculine hardness you tried to convey, Mark, revealing that you secretly loved Twilight and were Team Jacob all along. This might have ruined our friendship if we had one, as I am 100% Team Edward.
Many explicitly talk about you as if you still have access to your social media, which I guess I am participating in too. They find themselves getting their phone out to text or call you, imagining you’re reading everyone’s messages but unable to reply due to the lack of coverage up there. “I don’t appreciate you not opening my fb mails” one person writes, while another simply asks “Upto mydogg?” never to receive an answer.
One of the most difficult side effects of this engagement is that it becomes a popularity contest all over again, occupied by ghosts. After three teenagers died in the same incident, the disparity between their social engagement was stark. All the news articles and statements by family members kept them as equals, but when one profile receives over 200 commemorative posts in a week and another barely breaks three dozen, it’s hard to come to terms with.
Something about it is so alarmingly modern yet so untenably ancient, recalling the poetic satire of certain Roman epitaphs, those who say the Kaddish for departed loved ones at the Western Wall, the public displays of mourning performed by the widows of Ancient Greece. Everyone clamours to express their relationship with the dead, to publicly mourn, to be seen. An inscription upon their digital tomb, an entry into a collaborative biography of their life, a signature on the cast of a fatal wound.
There’s a boy from the South Island who I only share one mutual friend with that I also gravitated towards while trying to organise my emotions about you. I’ll call him Caleb. It’s been nine years since Caleb’s suicide at fourteen and his friends still use his profile to update everyone on what’s happening in their lives. They’re a different crowd to your friends, Mark. Straight-edge. More sentimental but more self-absorbed.
People pop in to tell Caleb that they got into the Uni course they wanted, that they got married, moved house, have a new pet, or simply “busted some mad dance skills while pimpen” at the school ball that night. Others call on Caleb for guidance, for otherworldly assistance. Prayers for the strength to not “punch a little kid in the face” over the lies he’s spreading, for the win of a sporting team several of Caleb’s friends are now in, to be “blessed with a damn fine biatch” while out clubbing. Some don’t address Caleb at all beyond an indistinct “hey” at the beginning and in one movingly wistful case, “Thanks for listening” at the end.
Deep down, I know all of these are written in good faith, are written with love for their dead friend, but narcissism lurks. It’s as if Caleb is an afterthought in some cases, as if any mention of him is strictly perfunctory, performative, an empty TV channel through which people can broadcast aspects of themselves. One person openly admits “I don’t think I ever did meet you” but still can’t miss the opportunity to post on Caleb’s profile, even though he’s been gone for years. The death of a friend signals the opening of a new retail space where the product is your personal grief.
The most egregious post of this sort details the mourner grappling with his bad reputation following a high school fight. After detailing exactly how everyone has mistreated him and made him miserable, he insists he’s “just talking to you aye Caleb,” knowing full well that Caleb’s profile is the most public space imaginable. The post ends with “Got a bottle of sleeping meds over here cos of it all, but its hard to go through with,” threatening suicide on the profile of a victim of it.
Before I heard the laughter, there was a strained gurgling scream. Three girls I knew crowded around one of the computer monitors in our Year 12 art class, laughing and covering their eyes between gasps of “Oh my God” and “That’s fucking sick.” I was waved over to join them, and onscreen was footage of a man being beaten to death with a hammer.
“I’m not into that sorta stuff.”
I took my seat, still listening to Sergei Yatzenko’s murder, a Ukranian grandfather learning to speak again after his battle with throat cancer. Did you ever watch the video, Mark?
Looking back, I recognise that this was never a commonplace occurrence with people in the generation before ours. The shock video phenomenon was so widespread that I didn’t flinch when entering that classroom. Years before that, I walked in on a 12-year-old friend watching a video of a man slowly, painfully mutilating his own penis and having a laugh about it. Friends often showed me graphic pornography, photos of people who died in bloody accidents, foetuses lazing on kidney dishes.
I made hundreds of innocent YouTube videos in my youth and received just as many death threats, prayers for me to get cancer or die in a house fire, promises that I’ll see my family raped. People went out of their way to photoshop the image of Alan Kurdi into a meme, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee lying dead on a beach in his red T-shirt.
Even the well-intentioned ‘every like helps’ ideology which once clogged up my Facebook feed desensitized me. Endless photos of deformed or dying children, of horrifically abused animals, all presented under the false belief that likes and shares would fund their surgery.
My high school was decorated with fliers and banners for KONY2012, a social media campaign to neutralise Joseph Kony, a child-slaver and mass-murderer. We all did our part, with many donating and protesting. Every student attending my girlfriend’s school was obligated to write a letter to John Key demanding he voice his support. Yet it all led to nothing. The entire campaign was unsuccessful after the creator’s public meltdown, and, as the joke goes, Kony’s still out there. The internet seemed incapable of doing good to my young eyes, doomed to fail us.
After attending a heart-wrenching Yom HaShoah when I was fourteen or so, a boy from my synagogue wrote “RIP to those who died in the holocaust :’(” and it made me unreasonably angry. Seeing such an empty, useless expression of grief after such a devastating, world changing event left me furious. This same feeling intensified when I saw the online response from my friends after the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks. Nearly every person I knew wrote some impersonal, hollow response, positioning themselves as the politician and expressing identical empty condolences.
Where is the emotion, the raw expression, the fury and misery? Some of these people had shared islamophobic posts in the years prior and it disgusted me to see such performative empathy. For some of these people, it was self-preservation, an easy way to make sure people know you didn’t support the vicious murder of innocents.
#Blackouttuesday was another in the line of empty responses to murder via social media, having users show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement by refusing to use social media for 24 hours aside from posting an image of a black square. This expression of solidarity made it near impossible to find information about protest organisation, donation links, and material from the front lines. The entire movement was effectively silenced for a day due to performative solidarity which didn’t help anybody beyond those posting, finding the most low-effort way to prove their moral goodness.
Many campaigns have been successful and genuinely useful, but these don’t cling to the social consciousness like an Ice Bucket Challenge or a protest-themed Pepsi commercial. Beneficial activism and palpable empathy seem to wither in the soil of social media, fading beneath the endless performances which swallow the light – especially to those like me who have learnt to expect the worst.
Tortoise-shell and flat-faced, sweet Catkin outlived Caleb by eight years, dying at the incredible age of twenty-two. Every birthday that followed Caleb’s death brought a small update from his mother with it, detailing how the pets were doing, on the potatoes growing in the garden, on baking the food he used to love. Catkin quickly adapted to their new house and was still catching mice in the last year of her life. When she finally passed away peaceful in sleep, Caleb’s mother expressed such thankfulness in knowing that her son would act as Catkin’s guide to heaven, joyful they could finally be reunited after so long apart.
This was one of several points during my research for this essay that I stopped scrolling because I was crying too much. Another time it was over you, Mark.
Your friend was lamenting the fact you were meant to go fishing with him but now will never get the chance. In the attached photo, his bare legs dangle over the black water below the jetty, fishing line cutting through the cold night in the camera’s flash. I hope you joined him in spirit and made a “big cunt hook on” like he requested.
So many posts from your friends express the hope that you’re somehow still active in their lives, that you will fulfil their prayers. For every wish that you witnessed something that happened on earth, a marriage or an acceptance letter, there’s a request for you to save and guide the newly deceased. People turn to you when grieving: “she needs a friend up there” they say of their dead sister, “look after my darling dog,” “show granddad around, remember to speak louder, he’s a bit deaf.”
You have become a portal to the other side, an emissary of death, and that is beautiful. It sometimes rubs my hair upwards, leaves me uneasy and critical, but that’s on me, not your friends. People feel comfortable engaging with your memory because of how you lived, because of what you represented for them. It might be a coping mechanism, sure, but that’s all we can shine in the unknowable face of death.
Witnessing the emotional authenticity of these posts forced me to reconsider my reaction to the seemingly disrespectful ones, to recognise the lack of malice behind these shockingly honest feelings. This was what I was looking for when I felt furious at the empty comments made about tragedies, the performative narcissisms and self-preservation tactics. The reaction from your friends is what I was wanting this whole time and I didn’t even know it.
While writing this essay to you, I’ve come to understand that it is genuinely heart-warming for a Mongrel Mob wife to look up at the sky and wonder if you are sending her newborn baby “a seig heil” even if it shakes my sheltered white-Jewish sensibilities. It’s honest and personal and damningly rare to find online. As alarming as these statements may seem to outsiders like me, the love is impossible to miss.
When I coldly shook my head at the empty responses to the Christchurch terror attacks, to KONY2012’s failure, to every #Blackout post; I wasn’t offering anything better. I didn’t share that many links to donations, I didn’t openly express the wealth of feelings I felt, I didn’t properly support the ethical and well-considered campaigns towards justice.
I never really engaged with social media because it never felt like an appropriate platform for me. It wronged me in my youth, showed me the worst humanity had to offer, but I must grow up. The world and the internet are one and same now, just as ugly and beautiful and honest and fake as each other. I need to accept this.
To be silent online is to be silent in real life. Mourning by a graveside alone, whispering a prayer for the dead, remembering the good times among friends – it may feel more proper, but it’s no less self-serving than social media. Sharing evidence of donating to a cause may strike me as crass, but it pushes others to do so too, it places the onus on them, which cannot be said for aiding in silence the way I have done.
We need online etiquette to be more rigidly defined, but to disavow the use of social media altogether is regressive and ignorant. With the constant migration to newer platforms by young people, the age of users on these contemporary sites will skew older and older until they become nothing more than digital graveyards. For those who cannot easily visit a physical site or fear their loved ones may be forgotten, this could change mourning forever. In a positive way. New things are always scary, often ugly at first, but a digital post-life could become a beautiful thing.
Which leaves me in an awkward position with you, Mark. That friend request you sent me before your death still sits in my list after all these years, nestled between a high-school bully and an obviously fake profile of a bikinied woman. To simply delete your request seems callous and wrong, but if I accept it, all our friends will receive the notification that I did, all these years late.
Perhaps I could share the story of our one chance encounter outside the supermarket, write it up on your page for all to see. Perhaps I could talk with your friends about the sort of person you were and write a far better essay than this one, perhaps my feeling would be graciously welcomed. I will never know, for I am a coward who sits under pixelated shadow, unable to cross the last hurdle.
Your request shall always lie unanswered, and for that, I apologise.
RIP Ol’ Scratchy Balls.
RIP to those whose physical deaths and digital afterlives informed this essay. I wish I knew any of you well enough to ethically use your true names.
RIP Sergei Yatzenko and Alan Kurdi, who remained victims of the internet’s cruelty after they were victims of humanity’s.
RIP Catkin, I’m glad you’re reunited with Caleb after so long.
RIP to all suffering youth, to those who feel trapped, who don’t believe life is worth living. Those who wrap themselves around telephone poles and glass bottles because there isn’t another way, those who embrace themselves with rope and chemical, those who will never read the too-late messages of love they receive.
I’m sorry I mourned in silence and solitude for this long.
Danny Bultitude holds an MA in English Literature and has previously been published in Landfall, Newsroom, and The Spinoff. He was one of the recipients of the 2019 Surrey Hotel Writer's Residency and hopes to have a lovely view when he fades away into compost.