Michele Kirsch on Google grieving

Extraordinary piece by Michele Kirsch on google grief, the act of finding out via google that the person who was one of your very best buddies from 1978 to 1985 actually dropped dead, unbeknown to you, three years ago?

More to the point, what does it say about a person whose life is full of people and activities that really matter right now, yet who still feels compelled to cyberhike down memory lane? Why, in other words, when I have so much to do, am I mucking about on the web, finding out stuff that matters to no one but selfish me?

Professor Alexander says: ‘Trying to track down someone years and years after their absence may suggest something could be amiss in your current interpersonal life. If you feel you have to retrieve your past, it might indicate that something is missing just now.’

Great. Now I feel neurotic and needy as well as a bit sad. But Penny Crick has a more sympathetic take on it. ‘I think that being in a state of transition and being a bit stressed leaves one in a particularly vulnerable state, so that the news of the death of an old friend might have more of an emotional impact than at another time.’

I reckon if you confine your searches to cyberspace and don’t spend too many hours on the web to the detriment of the people who want and need you right now, you can probably emerge from these nostalgic binges with a mysterious half-smile on your face, or a vague air of melancholy, like Gabriel Conroy’s wife in James Joyce’s story The Dead.

If you are not familiar with the story, here’s the plot in a nutshell. Everybody is having a great old time at Christmas and Mrs Conroy gets all sad because she hears a song that her long-dead first suitor used to sing to her. And her husband seems to be saying to her (in a poetic, Joycean way, of course ), ‘Hello! What am I? Chopped Liver?’

This echoes my boyfriend’s sentiments. When he sees me frantically trying to delete the traces of a nostalgia-led Google search, he opens his arms and says: ‘Come back to the land of the living.’ He’s right. By and large, it’s a better place to be.

I could write a tome on this subject, and actually do a lot of googling of old friends (mostly women) to see what they’re up to. I never cease to be surprised at how few of my friends have bothered to put up a web page (or made it readily accessible). I do like the fact that you can google friends, enemies and old loves. I like the fact that people simply don’t disappear out of your lives, that they are always googlable. It’s a fact of life that people fall out of touch, but never before have geographic distances seemed so easy to surmount. Aside from long distances relationships (which never seem to work), it’s quite easy to maintain friendships via distances, using emails, photo galleries, webcams and of course phone calls.

Quite frankly, I can’t imagine what life used to be like when you couldn’t renew contacts with old acquaintances. Communities used to be more tightly formed, perhaps more insular. Before, whenever you left a city or state or country, it meant abandoning old ties, saying goodbye to a part of your life and returning for a rare visit. Nowadays, you are always returning, renewing acquaintances, following people’s digital lives even if they live far away. I’ve only lived overseas for 3 years, but it’s funny how email (for instance) altered the ability to stay in touch. Now telephone calls are also easy and cheap. I’m sure you have your share of friends whom you never communicate with for a year or so, then you send a one line email, your friend responds, and then for two intense days you are “catching up” as though time had not passed.

Maybe that’s the result of the Internet: more acquaintances, fewer friends.