My mother, Ruth Davis, had a complicated relationship with Facebook. She joined the service about 10 years ago and became a frequent user, proving adept at creating her profile and posting photos. She also lied about her age, although unlike many senior citizens, she added 12 years to her actual age. As a widow, perhaps she did not view this social-media platform as a dating service.
Inevitably, I received a “friend request” from her, which led to one of those digital moral dilemmas for which there is no good solution. To accept her request would mean that every time I shared something with my friend group, she would add on a heartfelt and sappy “Great!” or “You’re the best!” type of exclamation as a comment. She was a heavy exclamation-point user. To deny her request would hurt her feelings. In the end, I did not accept her friend request, and she never pressed me on the matter.
Due to the site’s architecture, we shared so many mutual Facebook friends that my mother would pop up in my news feed with a comment about a friend’s good fortune: “That’s absolutely wonderful, Brian!!!!!” When I visited my mom and helped her with software upgrades, I witnessed that she had been very active on the platform, connecting with some people she didn’t know very well in the “real world,” but sharing in their triumphs and woes. Connection is underrated, especially for seniors who live alone. Facebook rarely gets credit for that social benefit.
On the day my mother turned 100, my Facebook feed picked up many congratulations on her longevity, as well as her “Thank yous!!!” Of course, my mom was still in her late 80s, but I wasn’t going to deny her this pleasure and wondered if the social network did anything special to recognize Centenarians. Apparently, it doesn’t.
Twitter and Instagram proved too daunting for my mother, who essentially viewed her smartphone as an emergency device that should remain plugged in to a wall charger in the event that her landline failed. The form factor of modern phones can prove challenging for many people who grew up in the Depression, in the era of rotary dials and party lines. They don’t know from “apps.” However, my mom did experiment with a new platform for business professionals that she referred to as “Linka-Din.” Did she think this was an Irish company?
In the meantime, I came to understand that my mother was more fluent with Facebook than I realized, evidenced by her commenting directly to me about some news or travelogue I had posted. “Oh, you looked so nice on that ferryboat!” she might slip in a phone call. Through mutual connections, she had apparently learned to lurk on my home page. Perhaps she knew that I knew.
When she passed away in February of this year, a bright light extinguished. We were lucky to be able to gather family and close friends for a memorial service, complete with songs that she had savored during her musical career, before COVID-19 restrictions turned the world upside down. It also fell to me to handle her social-media presence, as I saw frequent notifications in her email, including many by friends who were still sharing their posts with her.
Facebook has become quite adept at handling the death of a user. They offer a choice to create a memorial page or simply to close a person’s account. I chose the second option and received a very nice email from its customer team confirming that my mother’s Facebook presence had come to a close.
Most Americans are fortunate to live long lives these days, and an increasing portion of each life consists of thousands of digital interactions, comprising of our email, Web pages that capture our activities and social media postings containing intimacies that an earlier generation would not have shared with 300 or 400 acquaintances. My mother loved the attention she garnered from her Facebook adventure, but I came to realize that she truly relished the chance to share her ebullience with others and compliment her friends on their personal news and shared memories. That was one of her wonderful underrated qualities. In a world where seniors are isolated by many circumstances, a simple “Like” is meaningful. And a “Like” followed by three exclamation points can be even better.