My friend Roy died last year. Only slightly older than me, we worked together at my very first, and most beloved startup, IntelliCorp. Roy was the older brother I always wanted and never got. He made me laugh and laugh and laugh, and then in the next breath he would make me so mad my ears would turn red. We shared cigarettes on the balcony and lunch in the kitchen.
After eight years and an untold number of layoffs it was finally my turn to leave the IntelliCorp nest. I was sad and afraid to leave the friends who had become family, and I had a strong, unfounded sense that I was unqualified to work anywhere else. I had done so many different jobs over the eight years, what skills did I actually possess? Part of me believed they had kept me on at the company out of love. Today I know that this is a naive way to think, but back in the day it could have been true. Startups were different then.
In any case, Roy helped me to get over those feelings. By simply being a good friend who believed in me, he helped me to believe in myself. I gathered my courage and moved on to another startup. And through the inertia of benign neglect, we lost touch.
Eventually Facebook and LinkedIn brought the IntelliCorp community together, in the virtual homeland of social media. I learned that Roy had moved to Thailand and that he had started his own company. That he was still passionate about politics and incapable of keeping his opinion to himself (a flaw we share). It felt great to have him back in my life, even if it was virtual. It felt good to be connected again.
And then, in a completely unexpected turn of events he was gone. A heart attack while riding his bike, he collapsed on a bench and never woke up.
He was 50. Healthy. Now non-smoking, bicycle riding, and fit. This was impossible.
Together the IntelliCorp family mourned the loss; quietly, in small, heartfelt posts, many with pictures. And while I was sad, I was comforted by the images that showed him to be happy and surrounded by friends. This was the virtue of Facebook I thought. Social media had brought us together to share our farflung lives - with the happy, joyful, mundane, sad and horrible moments we all experience. This was a moment to be shared with friends. It was consoling to "be" with other people who cared about him.
Then, four months later, Facebook notified me that it was Roy's birthday. I was taken aback by the wholly unexpected reminder. It was too soon.
I guess someone has to notify Facebook that a person is no longer alive before they take down his page. And I bet that's a hard thing to do if you're the family member who could do it.
Or maybe they never take it down.
Touched by the memory of Roy, I went to visit his page, to see who else missed him. Quite a few of us, it turned out. The community sentiment was wistful and sad and mirrored my own feelings.
Another shared moment.
But then I started to see something that made me uneasy: there were posts from people wishing him a happy birthday as if he was still alive. Posts from friends and colleagues who didn't know; sales pitches from people who may never have met him. All leaving these greetings and messages on his wall. It felt inappropriate and unsettling. Like the defacing of a memorial. Like someone should say something to make them stop.
Or perhaps Facebook could just stop sending out notifications to everyone in Roy's contact list.
Then, perhaps because I was overly sensitive to the idea of social media keeping Roy alive, I noticed something else: whenever I invited people to our shop events, Roy was included in the list of people I could invite. I couldn't help but think "no, I can't invite him. I can never invite him again."
Cue sound: ripped bandaid.
Today, almost a year later, Roy is still alive on Facebook. Working (present tense) for a technology company, living in Reno. Available for birthday greetings, invitations and sales calls. We share 34 friends.
That last part is still true.