“Reconnect with Gena Dry”, my Facebook account nags. Except I can’t, because she died in February. This piece isn’t about Gena, though she is more than worthy of one. It’s about the way the internet has changed our relationship with facts–and the way it seems to have changed our relationship with death, too.
I found out she’d died via Facebook, so you’d think it would know: a mutual friend had seen an RIP message on a relative’s page. The relative was uncontactable, so he wanted to know if I knew anything about it. No, was the answer: I was utterly ignorant. Checking Gena’s profile, I found messages of loss and condolence steadily accruing. They perturbed me. They were of the increasingly popular “emotive” type, all “a light has gone from the world” and “with the angels”, and while I felt a rather English discomfort with this somewhat mawkish, post-Diana sensibility, really I just wanted to know two things: who were these strangers, and what did they know that I didn’t?
Beyond the odd “details will be posted when the situation becomes clear” message, there were no facts, just emotions—and the faint whiff of in-crowdism. All I could be sure of was that I, and all of the circle in which I moved, knew precisely nothing.
The day passed with no more concrete information emerging,. So I did what I never would have done with ‘real’ people, before Facebook. Reader, I mailed them. The posters, that is, asking them something like “what’s happened?” Replies included “I’ve no reason to believe it isn’t true” and “I don’t know what has happened.”
I was none the wiser, but more worried than ever. The fact was, no-one had actually said that she was dead. It seemed to be one very large shared supposition, with people posting simply because someone else had–but like many, I had no reason to believe it wasn’t true. At this point, I was fearing the worst, but still hoping for the best. Messages from my own friends showed they were doing the same. Eventually one of the people I had mailed replied, saying she had spoken to the relative and it was true, Gena had died. For about 36 hours we had…