Digital Haunting and Asynchronous Mourning

This isn’t about Pokemon GO. However, the proliferation of Pokemon GO into mainstream culture has gotten me thinking a lot about the relationship human memory has with space – and the ways in which digital augmentations begin to show how inseparable both these elements really are. I just recently wrote a piece about the ways in which Pokemon GO have had a transformative effect on community in Wollongong (which can be read here).

Lately, I have been thinking about a time in my life from 3 years ago.

It was around June or July in 2013. I had been living around six months in a cheap, run down old house in Wollongong with my cousin. He was studying at the university doing the degree that I would eventually end up enrolling in – and I was unemployed. Unstable employment is something I have struggled with on and off for many years since I left high school in 2006, but this was the first time I had been on unemployment benefits and living far away from my family and support networks. I was feeling very lost. I had moved to Wollongong to enrol in a chemistry honours program, but had dropped out after a month. I was unemployed, directionless, and alone in a strange place far away from home.

It was during this time, I started using and experimenting with a range of social media platforms. As I did this, I started to form online friendships.

I was new on Twitter and Tumblr at this time, and grew to be quite active. During these first few months of Twitter I fostered friendships with a few people. I would converse with them publically and privately. They’d support me in times of need and provide escapism to help take my mind off the various uncertainties in my life that had been growing during this time.

It was by no means a panacea for my troubles, but I didn’t feel so isolated anymore.

As the months dragged on things continued to change in my life. I started to move out of the emotional trench I had dug for myself. I was visiting close friends in Sydney more and I had started to keep busy with job seeking and enrolment in a new degree. As I did so I had less time to spend on the mess I had made of my Twitter account (I had ended up following a lot of garbage accounts). So just a few days before I returned to uni to start a new degree I decided to get back on to Twitter and catch up with some of my friends. I had been out of touch, and I missed them.

What I wasn’t ready to learn, was that one of my Twitter friends had died in a car accident a few weeks beforehand.

It came as a shock. I tweeted at them publically – a distasteful joke about still being alive in spite of my prolonged absence. A mutual online friend privately messaged me, unsure if I was tweeting in poor taste or if I was completely unaware of what had unfolded. I was oblivious and it took me about 10 minutes before I believed it. But as I investigated her timeline it all started to become painfully obvious. People tweeted that they missed her. She hadn’t tweeted in weeks, and – sure enough – her last few tweets documented that she had been in a car accident and was in hospital. The last tweet she wrote was made in praise of one of the nurses caring for her.

She was going to bring her a pizza in gratitude. Her account was often a celebration of pizza.

Once again I felt isolated. This time in grief. Her death and my own delayed discovery had made the grieving process strangely private and difficult to manage. I couldn’t just say to my own friends, ‘a friend died and I’m mourning’ because the distanced relationship I had with this person meant that this would turn into a big, messy explanation. It’s hard to completely explain who a person is and what they meant to you when you’re still struggling to process this new, strange form of loss. It wasn’t until I had some emotional breakdowns later on in the year that I had begun to explain this to people. This hidden loss – the death of a person who was so invisible to my closest circles of friends. My friends didn’t even use Twitter. It was so foreign I felt like it was impossible to share. It didn’t even feel real. Every time I would go to her account I’d search for new information – an indication that she was alive and we could make up for all this lost time. Maybe we could have laughed about it?

I bet we would have laughed.

I guess I’ll never know.

It wasn’t until quite recently, after a process of grieving and opening up about my experience with some close friends, that I was finally able to look at her Twitter profile again. I had long since stopped using the Twitter account through which she had known me – partly because of its aforementioned clutter, but mostly because it felt vastly more empty without her.The relentless churn of Twitter marched on in a way that I wasn’t happy with – I wasn’t ready for it. So I gradually moved over entirely to using my university Twitter account, where I wasn’t just a few clicks away from her digital legacy. But at the same time, I never want to delete my old account as it remains the only thing I still have that ties me to this person. A digital scrapbook turned memorial.

It wasn’t until recently I was emotionally able to follow her account from my new one.

I realize a huge part of the impact this had on me was how asynchronous my process was with the actual events. I felt so strangely displaced, and I felt a lot of guilt at knowing this had happened whilst I was on hiatus. I had distanced myself and in that time I had been robbed of the opportunity to spend more time with her. I saw her final few tweets describing the events that lead to her fatal injuries and I realized if I had not been away I could have wished her well. I could have said something.

When you start to think about this it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that if you’d said something, things could have been different.

A lot is made of the internet era in terms of what is now instant and permanent. But It’s moments like these that really deflate and unravel those notions. Human beings aren’t always available – aren’t always switched on. Sometimes we need breaks, pauses, and disconnections. The technology only extends us – both our capabilities and our permanence. But it doesn’t let us escape our transience.

Nothing is permanent.

We are living in a time where everyone is able to construct digital personas that have enormous reach. A life that extends far beyond our own. The things we put into cyberspace – be they carefully crafted or haphazardly tossed out – are now an extension of our memories that already augment the world we live within.

They won’t be complete. They won’t even be permanent. But they will haunt the spaces where we once found comfort long after we’re gone.

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