Dear Mr. Know-It-All: Should You Delete Someone’s Facebook Account After They Die?
Dear Mr. Know-It-All: How long should you wait before shutting down someone’s Facebook account after they die?
“This is for all you lovers out there.” That’s how it begins—one of the most existentially horrifying moments in American cinema.
I’m talking about the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in Back to the Future, in which we see a temporally displaced Marty McFly onstage, sitting in with the band on “Earth Angel” with a guitar, while his teenage parents, George and Lorraine, move toward their first kiss.
This is it: the precise, excruciatingly brief moment in which the cosmos will offer up the possibility for them to fall in love—a doorway they can step through or not step through. But if they do, it’s a straight shot from here through the sinews of the spacetime continuum to marriage, and to Marty’s birth, and to all the circumstances of life that Marty had always mistaken for the one and only, inviolable reality. But he’s wising up now. While traveling through time, he’s learning that his life, like all of our lives, is only an exquisite and provisional fluke—a haphazard product of so many collisions and coincidences that were never guaranteed. Up on the stage, he’s about to be confronted with this truth in a deep and terrible way.
You know the scene, right? It turns on an obnoxious redhead who tells George to “scram,” then cuts in between him and Lorraine and sweeps her away. Slowly, a warped and nightmarish score rises over “Earth Angel.” Marty becomes disoriented, diminished. His strength—his selfhood—is draining out of him as, out on the dance floor, that insufferable ginger cackles and whips Lorraine around like a rag doll. He is dragging Lorraine farther and farther from George—and dragging our universe (or maybe all of this is proof of a multiverse?) farther from its capacity to produce Marty’s life, diverting the sacred headwaters of his personal history.
Marty’s compromised hands batter his guitar, making a discordant mess of “Earth Angel.” He raises one hand and watches it turn … translucent! His face is stupefied, powerless. Somehow Michael J. Fox—that cocky scion of 1980s precociousness—pulls it off: this look of violated innocence and panic, of a carefree boy suddenly thrown down and dying on the battlefield of time.
What is happening to Marty? Doc Brown has already explained the process: Marty is being “erased from existence.” Stop and think about those words for a second. They are horrifying. (A thrash metal band from Belfast called Scimitar even wrote an abrasive, ear-pummeling song called “Erased from Existence,” inspired by this scene. It’s very hard to listen to.) But the worst part isn’t even that Marty himself is being erased. The true, piercing horror comes when he looks at the photograph slipped through the strings of his guitar: the one of his brother and sister and him standing against a low rock wall. Earlier in the film we’ve seen the images of his two siblings vanish from that photo, and now Marty’s image is fading too. This is what it means to be erased from existence. And this is what frightens me most: not just that Marty is vanishing but that all evidence of his life will vanish. No one will know who he was, because—here’s the thing—he wasn’t.
You ask how long you should wait before shutting down the Facebook page of a loved one who’s died. I ask why you’d ever want to delete it. Consider the ripple effects—the many ways their absence would be felt across that platform, on so many other people’s pages and their community’s collective, digital memory. Everything the deceased had said, not just on their own page but on others, would be gone. And so would everything people had said to them. They’d be instantaneously untagged from hundreds or even thousands of other people’s photos, exiled into some anonymous interloper status: a nameless human void.