Digital Valentines: On Media, Mourning and a New Dawn of the Dead


by Legacy Russell

Poet Richard Siken begins his “Dirty Valentine” [1] by confessing, “There are so many things I’m not allowed to tell you. / I touch myself, I dream.” I do, too. We live in a confessional culture wherein the most detailed minutiae of everyday life is splayed out via the platform of social media to be pinched black and blue, critiqued and celebrated. Therefore it should come as no surprise that within this arc, these bytes of life, we have begun to map out territory for what comes after, as well. Mourning in the digital age is a shape-shifter, the sands of this geography rapidly slipping as we plunge deeper into a more profound understanding of ourselves in relation to digital space and the environs being created within it. A physical body dies once in the physical world, but within the realm of the virtual is subject to the Tuck Everlasting of an eternal life, all at once both a purgatory and paradise.

When a body dies in the realm of The Real, it disappears. We accept the place-holders of ashes, urns, coffins, burial plots, shrines, photographs and the possessions of the deceased as stand-ins for the living person. These items are relics, they are the signs and symbols that we hold onto out of our desire to maintain order and wholeness within the worlds we occupy. Because nothing can remain permanently whole, these objects become part of the fiction we create for ourselves, the fiction that accompanies the dreams of infinite tomorrows; the narrative that fuels the very essence of the backwards-glance of nostalgia.

Within the digital arena, however, the body is mummified in the encasing of social media and the face these platforms maintain for the dead. In digital space, the place a body occupies, as curated by the individual who holds it, does not die, it simply becomes abandoned. In Sarah Wanenchak’s recent essay “Atemporality and Abandoned Digital Space” she defines atemporality as:

The idea that our experience is not necessarily as linear as we like to present it; that we don’t just move in a straight line from A to B in time but that we often experience aspects of the past, the present, and the future simultaneously . . . Moreover, this phenomenon is intensified by technology and especially by technologies of documentation and sharing.

These “technologies of documentation and sharing”, upon the death of an individual, suspend our understanding of the present, freezing the body in a moment in time, ageless, atemporal, untouched and present for online visitors and passers-by. Wanenchak continues:

Digital spaces can be abandoned, but they don’t become ruined, at least not in the way that physical spaces do. When we enter an abandoned physical space, its ruined nature causes it to be especially time-laden; we feel the passage of time in what time has done to that space. Abandoned digital space is simply frozen at the last point at which something was done to it; nothing more will happen to it unless a hard drive is wiped clean or a server goes offline. It just stops.

In the realm of The Real we strive to prevent this “ruin” by holding on to items that are relics of the past. Yet in the virtual realm, ruin is preventable, we can live on untouched by the elements. We spend our entire lives curating the ultimate versions of ourselves online—we pass days vetting out the good from the bad, and helping others do the same. These daily exchanges are new rituals, signifiers of a new religion being practiced en masse with an extended community, igniting a collective consciousness, a continued meditation on who we are, what we strive to be, and where we have come from.

In his essay “Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, Boris Groys states that “ritual, repetition, and reproduction were hitherto matters of religion; they were practiced in isolated, sacred places. In the modern age, ritual, repetition, and reproduction have become the fate of the entire world, of the entire culture. Everything reproduces itself—capital, commodities, technology, and art”. Through platforms of social media, we as a society are writing new texts, they are instruction booklets that are detailing within the realm of the virtual the steps physical bodies in the modern age must take in order to not only represent the fulfillment of a life truly realized, but how to die and be best remembered. Through these portals, we are writing our own obituaries, our own bibles of social science and the revolutions of culture—these items are the Dead Sea Scrolls of our time. And when we die, they become dead letters—sent out to our Followers, Subscribers, and Friends in real time but interrupted in delivery, as delivery itself insinuates a possibility of exchange and when we die, the opportunity to exchange between two bodies in the realm of The Real, expires with us.

“Passed Away”, from The [Face]book of Hours series, Legacy Russell

In 2009, two things happened. In October of 2009, Facebook introduced the concept of “memorial pages”. This took place as a response to complaints about Facebook’s algorithms providing recommendations for people to “reconnect” with friends who had passed away. Many interpreted this as insensitive; Facebook’s decision to create memorialized accounts proffered an eloquent solution. On The Facebook Blog, now former Chief Security Officer Max Kelly wrote on October 26th, 2009:

We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those who are no longer with them, which is why it’s important when someone passes away that their friends or family contact Facebook to request that a profile be memorialized . . . When an account is memorialized, we also set privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. We try to protect the deceased’s privacy by removing sensitive information such as contact information and status updates. Memorializing an account also prevents anyone from logging into it in the future, while still enabling friends and family to leave posts on the profile Wall in remembrance . . . As time passes, the sting of losing someone you care about also fades but it never goes away. I still visit my friend’s memorialized profile to remember the good times we had and share them with our mutual friends.

In December of 2009, a former schoolmate of mine took her own life. At some point in the months that followed I found myself at a Cat Power concert in Williamsburg with a close friend whom I had known since childhood. This friend also happened to have been a good friend of our schoolmate, now gone. During the concert, we held hands and wept a bit, lulled into a sense of safety, guarded against prying eyes by the darkness of the room. “She would have loved to be here,” my friend noted. I agreed.

In the years and other losses that followed, I found myself at times mired in the fog, typing in the names of absent bodies as I created Event pages or Groups for various projects. Via Twitter I have experienced moments of wishing that sending a message out to a missed loved one could somehow perforate the divide and prompt a response from somewhere beyond: “@legacyrussell You’re on my mind, too.” or, “@legacyrussell Wish we could go dancing tonight!” While these social platforms have worked toward finding a way to resolve the discomfort that comes with the oft confusing collision of public and private grieving, the best they have done for us is not the memorializing of accounts, but rather the simple act of allowing these accounts to be maintained, keeping them from being wiped clean, and in doing so, providing a safe space and point of connectivity in one’s experience of a loved one long after their departure.

There is a new-age polytheism that comes with approaching these social sites as icons or relics, markers for an Idolatry of the Ordinary—a friend’s mother with her husband on vacation, a father spending the day with his daughters, a friend on a road-trip, each day lasting forever, each an action for eternity. “The safest thing is to share your own story,” Megory Anderson, founder of the Sacred Dying Institute in San Francisco told Bruce Feiler of The New York Times in January (“Mourning in a Digital Age”). With individuals deciding what their stories will be before their exit from the Earth in the upkeep of their own sites and pages, we are able to participate in their continued construction of self via our cross-meeting (and missing) in the commons of virtual space. In Samuel G. Freedman’s piece, “In a New Ritual, Many Find Solace Online”, Denise Carson—author of the book Parting Ways that explores the role ritual occupies in the process of confronting and reconciling with death—states:

“When someone dies, you want everyone to know this life so that he or she did not live in vain . . . Memories of the deceased dump from our subconscious into our conscious mind. It can be overwhelming. Social media gives us a platform to organize our reflections. Now we have a stage online to transmit these life stories. And we have a place that allows us to share and connect with others in our hour of grief.”

When renowned and much-revered contemporary artist Mike Kelley was found dead with suicide as the apparent cause in January of 2012, memorializing manifested itself in The Real near his studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, and within digital space that February via a Facebook page created by the anonymous handle of “Mor Lovehours”. Via this platform, mourners were invited to “help rebuild MORE LOVE HOURS THAN CAN EVER BE REPAID AND THE WAGES OF SIN (1987), by contributing stuffed fabric toys, afghans, dried corn, wax candles . . . building an altar of unabashed sentimentality.” One invitee commented amid the flurry of comments and queries regarding the artist’s passing, “It’s nice to have a place to go and pay homage. I was frustrated last night having nowhere to go, so I drove around on the street he lived on.”

Social media platforms have allowed the gap between IRL (“In Real Life”) and cyber-communities to be bridged in times of deep despair, providing an opportunity for friends and strangers alike to found their own micro-tribes and build out their own individualized rubrics for decoding death and the sentiments that accompany it. “Indeed, many people . . . [take] to Facebook and Twitter because social media sites allow . . . them to reach a much wider community . . . But if Twitter and Facebook have offered fans a community in which to grieve, they have also accelerated the pace of mourning many times over (Ian Lovett, “Posting to Mourn a ‘Friend’”, The New York Times, February 17th, 2012).”

In March, the Mike Kelley Foundation accepted the contents of the memorial that had materialized via the Facebook Event’s call to action upon its dissembling, agreeing to conserve the items for posterity as part of their private collection.

Artist Ryder Ripps’s ongoing project mines data via Facebook using suicide-related keywords to track down relevant status updates, then publishes these on the website for public viewing. Though many of these updates are written in jest, it can be difficult to discern between the humorous and the auguring of what potentially could be the horrific. Thus, this project is, in some respects, an archiving of imagined “last words”, final rites that process and expose the tension between choosing to live and choosing to die. In light of Kelley’s death and the continued discussions surrounding the role of social media platforms in memorializing and remembrance, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if, in the final moments of such a life-altering, life-ending decision, Kelley had been on Facebook. If he had updated his status to verbalize his desire to end his own life, if there would have been an audience there to dissuade him, would he, in the midst of his own determination, have even given pause and reconsidered “. . . suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”? In her article “Facebook Suicide Watch: Ryder Ripps Strikes Again”, Karen Archey disavows Ryder’s project, concluding, “Ripps does well to remind us that on the Internet, nothing is sacred.” Yet Archey has missed the point: on the Internet, so much is sacred, populated by the spirits that continue to walk the digital halls. It’s just that nothing is secret.

Siken concludes his “Dirty Valentine” with an apology: “I’m sorry. We know how it works. The world is no longer mysterious.” As social media begins to help us sort out the puzzling trauma that is death, and the definition of mourning evolves in light of the everlasting presence of virtual identities, perhaps we will find this to be one step closer to the truth.


[1] Included in Crush (Yale University Press, 2005), a lyrical compilation of works written after the death of his boyfriend.

About the Author:

Legacy Russell is a writer and curator. Born and raised in New York City, she is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Recent exhibitions include Projects 110 : Michael Armitage, organized with Thelma Golden and The Studio Museum in Harlem at MoMA (2019); Dozie Kanu : Function (2019), Chloë Bass : Wayfinding (2019), Radical Reading Room (2019) at The Studio Museum in Harlem; and MOOD : Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018-19 (2019) at MoMA PS1. Russell’s ongoing academic work and research focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry, and new media ritual. She is Visual Arts Editor of Apogee Journal, a Contributing Editor for BOMB Magazine online, and a Senior Editor at Berfrois. Russell is the recipient of the Thoma Foundation 2019 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art and a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow. Her first book, Glitch Feminism, is forthcoming from Verso Books in Fall 2020. | Instagram: @ellerustle | Twitter: @legacyrussell.