My dad passed away last night, the post in my newsfeed said. I stopped and looked it over. Should I comment? Was that appropriate? Part of me was beginning to suffer "mourning sickness"; I'd already seen two other deaths announced in the last couple of weeks, plus a breakup, plus what looked like a mental breakdown...
And here's the thing. I didn't really know the guy who posted it.
That might sound strange, but as a writer / performer I end up making Facebook "friends" with a lot of people I haven't met. Facebook even encourages me (recent automated friend suggestions included Eddie Izzard and Quentin Tarantino; I'm still waiting to hear back). His name sounded vaguely familiar but not enough to jog any memories. Basically I was witnessing a moment of profound loss from a stranger. How could I show my sympathy in a way that was unobtrusive but quietly meaningful?
I clicked Like. Then I moved onto the next post.
Our generation will know more death in our lives than our parents did. We'll also know more birthdays, more newborn babies, more graduation ceremonies and more good and bad news of people we barely know as our social circles expand. We'll feel a weird intimacy with the lives of the famous. Eric Clapton's personal tribute to B.B. King had reached 168,957 Likes within a single morning. When Sheryl Sandberg's husband died recently her eulogy on Facebook attracted a quarter of a million.
Now Sheryl Sandberg's probably got a lot of friends - but a quarter of a million? Who were these people? And why did they care enough to express condolences to someone they'd never met?
I can't be the only one who feels that it sometimes adds up to a rather shallow form of engagement - one where celebrity names often suck up these sympathy clicks simply because they show up in our newsfeeds. Clapton and King have genuine pre-existing fanbases, sure, but for everyone else I'm not sure you can really "crowdsource" fellow feeling. Each one of those clicks, shares, Likes for Sandberg's husband - were they just a way for the crowd to feel a vague connection to someone famous? Sorry to hear of your loss. Click. Swipe. A phone vote. Death meets Britain's Got Talent.
The sociologist Robin Dunbar once famously said that the maximum number of meaningful relationships we can hold maxes out at about 150. Many of us are already in contact with many times that number. So we develop coping strategies - we extinguish Tinder matches with a single swipe; we rapid-scroll through news of our loved ones; we Like yet another post from yet another friend. We reduce emotions to clicks.
It's kind of ironic, really - because if we use them right, these same technologies can actually cement stronger bonds with others. Like many others, I've "accompanied" someone undergoing a traumatic incident via social media. I wasn't there with them in the hospital, but reading their live tweets from their hospital bed gave me the sense of some kind of presence, of fellow feeling. Facebook pages for the deceased have become virtual shrines, unbound by spatial limitations, allowing grieving friends or family to pay their respects from other continents. Since a friend died in 2009 I've contributed to such online memorials myself and they're very moving places - and only as superficial as, say, the average funeral turnout. After all, it's not like real life mourners are perfect either.
I guess the difference for me between the shrines and the "phone vote sympathy" is that the former's small-scale and from the heart, whereas the latter is just another celebrity name, another button to click. When we throw grieving open to the crowd, the crowd can turn it into mass spectacle - like when Rio Ferdinand announced the death of his wife only to find himself viciously trolled on Twitter. As we move into a world of more and more remote connections, we have to ask ourselves: are a million casual likes worth as much as one real shoulder to cry on?