Elchanan Poupko

When Our Social Media Outlives Us

Illustrative: Phone apps for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, among other social networks on a smartphone in Chennai, India, on March 22, 2018. (Arun Sankar/AFP/File)

Around the time of Rosh Hashana, I try to wish a Shana Tova and touch base with as many people as possible. I usually do this on WhatsApp, DM, or a tag on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, and some in the form of a phone call.

What struck me this year more than ever was that as I went through my contacts, I noticed the number of people whose social media is there, but they are no longer alive. Clergy, mental health professionals, philosophers, and many others have always called on people to ask themselves what they wish to see on their tombstone. The amount of time social media has been around, and the amount of time it is now outliving millions of its users, necessitates a conversation about how it is that social media memorializes who we are and those who we love.

I often wonder why it is that when announcing the passing of someone, those who announce it tag the person as if they were still checking their notifications when in fact, there is a clear reason to do so–it directs the world to the memories of that person who created it.

Whether the accounts of social media users remain up after they pass from this world may seem like a benign conversation, but in truth, it strikes at the heart of what humans have struggled with since the beginning of time—how it is that we will be remembered. The Pharos engaged in mammoth construction projects, mummifying humans to be remembered in a certain way. Many ancients carved in stones, erected temples, created statues, and wrote glorifying memoirs to make sure they were memorialized in an honorable way.

While officiating at funerals, I have found it hard to ignore this human urge to be remembered or to be forgotten. While making my way through the Jewish cemeteries, I see some with very small tombstones, with few words, while others with very large tombstones and even a mausoleum marking their grave. “To be forgotten is to die twice,” goes the saying. To many, to be remembered is to continue living after our bodies die.

The ability of social media to depict who we were even after we die is a reminder of the added judgment we must exercise while using social media. After someone dies unexpectedly, people often rush to their social media to see what they were thinking of most recently or what they were all about.

We often view social media as capturing fleeing moments, thoughts, humor, rage, gatherings, or anything else we choose to air on it. With the ever-increasing number of people using social media for an ever-growing amount of time every day, what if, in reality, social media is documenting our lives and memorializing us? What if, for good and for bad, social media is the archive in which our loved ones and communities will look back at when they want to remember us? Will it change the ways in which we choose to use—or not use–social media? Will we add at least some of the gravitas and deep thinking the Pharos gave to the pyramids and temples they built to memorialize themselves or that great emperors had when commissioning glory-telling memoirs, or is the beautify of social media capturing what was more spontaneous about our lives? Generations will tell.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.