It’s strange how the Internet connects us, and the information you can gather about people from our readily available online personas.
I remember when MySpace was the first major social media profile site, and how that online identity was still somehow separate from reality. It was the MYSPACE you, not the real you. Then something happened… more and more people started joining, and watching, and interacting with the online you, and the lines began to blur.
I remember when the website, “MyDeathSpace” came out. It was a collection of MySpace user pages of people who had died. My friend Krista and I would go on it together, like weird voyeurs, peaking into the online version of those who had passed, attempting to glean information about the real them, trying to piece together who they were as human beings, and imagining the supreme loss their friends and family must have felt. Some of what their friends and family felt was plastered all over their MySpace walls. Columns of “RIP” and “I’ll miss you” were interspersed with prayers, lamenting, and emoticon rose illustrations. People made heartfelt remembrances though MySpace posts as if somehow, whatever bit of that person that was left in the ether, would read their cyber eulogies. I always wondered how much of it was a coping mechanism or theater to evince the uniqueness or depth of their grief to others. It was so strange and fixating.
My Freshman year in college, I had a small year-long Literature class of maybe 12 students. A kid named Willie started missing a lot of classes, and naturally, we all took notice. Facebook was a new, college-geared social media site, and I made a group entitled “Where’s Willie” and all my classmates joined, including Willie himself, who promised he would explain when he got back. We found out soon after Willie had cancer. I deleted the group, Willie came to a few more classes. And then he died.
He shows up in my “Facebook Friends” cycle often. Every once and awhile, my ever-present macabre urge overcomes me to view his profile. I catch up on the recent posts from his friends and family, telling them about their days, wishing him happy birthday, updating him about major life events. People still continue to post. It’s been almost seven years since he died.
Since then, many more people have died and show up on my Facebook. And through friends, I see when THEIR friends die. They change their Facebook profile pictures. They make albums to remember. And I go through it all, trying to figure out what led to their untimely deaths, trying to piece together the friendship they shared with my friends. But it’s this distorted internet version of who those people once were… idyllic in some way, superficial at best. But in a way, that’s all we have left now when we go. We’re no longer a box of pictures. We’re a collection of our thoughts and interests and music and cell phone pictures. But what’s even that?
I’ve been a little fixated on the circumstances of the Trayvon Martin case. After hearing the 911 tapes and what are most likely his last cries for help, I have an intense desire for justice to be served. I’ve read the articles over and over again, reviewing the brazen and cavalier statements of Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee that their investigation was thorough and foolproof. Every time I read his statements, I find myself blinking blankly in disbelief.
I’ve been watching the cry for justice unfold in the comments sections with equal hope and horror as I see how people are responding to the event. The amount of racism I feel that is being revealed is astonishing, and something I cannot even articulate or wrap my mind around.
One such element of that: Racists and Zimmerman supporters have called foul on the Liberal media, claiming they are only showing “Younger” pictures of Trayvon. The point of this? Possibly two-fold - that we’re drumming up sympathy by making him look younger, and also that, as a 17 year old black kid, he probably looked a lot more menacing. And they demanded to see updated pictures, as if, whatever his size and appearance was, it would somehow make his killing that much more justified.
In that moment, I decided I wanted to find pictures of Trayvon, as he likely was when he died. So I took to Facebook.
I found his profile: Trayvon Slimm Martin. Class of 2013. His profile picture showed the familiar baby-faced kid that’s plastered all over the news, only this time he had a baseball cap on and earphones. His pictures were private, but his friends had a variety of different pictures of him as their profile pictures, all of them showing the same shy smile. And I read all of the RIP posts since February 27th. I gleaned his nickname – some friends called him “Tray,” others “Slimm.” Several friends described him as someone who always made them laugh. One kid lamented about the plans they had made together for the future, asking what is he going to do now. His sister couldn’t believe it. I went all the way back, and stopped, when I saw that he had birthday posts starting February 8th. He had turned 17 just a few weeks before.
He wasn’t just a black kid who got shot with Skittles in his pocket. And he isn’t even the cobbled picture of a person I put together from his internet profile. He was a sentient, breathing, human being. We all are. George Zimmerman is as well, but unfortunately, Zimmerman and many more people in this world don’t regard all human life with that level of preciousness.
How do we quantify the loss of any human life? If the Internet is any indication, we can’t. It’s just something you have to understand in your soul. It’s deep. It’s complex. And many, many people do not have the capacity to understand it. Many people just understand human life, so to speak, in black and white.