Facebook Ruins Our Memories

I wish I could be alive for my funeral. The narcissist in me wants to watch a bunch of people to celebrate the wonderful person I was, preferably while a slide show of my greatest achievements plays alongside Madonna's "Like a Prayer."

And then Facebook presented a simpler solution. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, the social network rolled out "look back" videos, compilations of every user's most-liked photos and life events paired with inspirational music. I thought my montage would evoke pride and nostalgia. Instead, I felt a special kind of sadness.

Turns out viewing sideways photos you don't remember taking while sitting at your desk, alone, stuffing your face with rice crackers, lacks the epic quality of my funeral fantasy.

Facebook provides a seductive substitute for the kind of remembering we should do in the physical presence of others. But the digital proxy will always feel hollow. Screens protect us from the messiness of human emotion, yet it's only by allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable that we experience anything meaningful.

Trend pieces have hypothesized that Facebook killed the high school reunion. Why actually see Monica, whom you found incredibly awkward in Grade 10 science class, when you already know from her Facebook page that she works for an ad agency, has a bratty-looking kid and is married to a banker.

While there's a good case to be made that your high-school reunion is worth skipping (although Romy and Michele provide the eternal counterpoint), no one should mistake clicking on profiles for the real deal. As a fellow alumnus so eloquently put it: "saying keeping up on Facebook is the same as seeing people is like saying you're really good at sex from all the porn you watch."

Zuckerberg's baby excels at piecemeal documentation. See something beautiful on a hike? Snap a photo for your wall. Feel a feeling? Make it your status. These snippets aren't meaningless, but they don't convey the depth of someone's personality. Monica's profile isn't going to reverse your decade-old impression of her. But having a beer together might.

And what about all the people you would never think to add on Facebook? The high school group dynamic is impossible to recreate virtually, and it's the best part of a reunion. Teen you is like a piece of cake that's frozen in time and can be magically defrosted in certain company. When I escorted my dad to his 35th reunion almost two decades ago, within hours he and his friends were calling each other by their old nicknames ("bear" and "maniac" come to mind). Nostalgia like that isn't accessible from a desk chair.

An even more important tradition than high school reunions is funerals to remember the dead. For grievers, physical touch releases feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and opioids. Religious gatherings like shivas and wakes create a community to support the bereaved as they accept a new reality. The ceremony pays respect to a life.

But death makes us feel awkward and armchair support is convenient armour. Bruce Feiler wrote in the New York Times that "in a world in which so much communication happens online, the balming effect of a face-to-face gathering can feel even more magnified." Facebook makes it easy to circumvent the hard work of remembering a person's life. On memorial pages, people can post memories of the deceased. Today, many hear of and respond to news of a death through Facebook.

That's what I did after reading a high-school friend's Facebook status about her father's death. We hadn't spoken in a while. I sent her a private message. When I learned the funeral details, anxieties immediately popped up: Would my presence be awkward? Presumptuous? Uncomfortable? (I can only imagine the anxieties she must have felt at the prospect of greeting people when she likely wanted to crumple in a ball).

But I went anyway, because the significance of actually being there cannot be overstated. To this day, my grandfather asks about a childhood friend of mine because he was so touched she came to my grandmother's wake more than 10 years ago.

When watching my Facebook "look back" I was reminded of the 90th birthday party my mom and I threw for my grandfather a few years ago. We made a slide show of photographs and wrote speeches. Before people arrived, I wanted to pee myself. I was so worried about being judged for our sentimentality that I wanted to disappear.

But when I saw the pride on my grandfather's face as the pictures rolled, surrounded by people who loved him, I knew we had done a good thing.

When Facebook can re-create that feeling, we'll never have to gather in-person again. But until then, I hope to see you at my funeral.

*This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.