In this week's issue, Jaweed Kaleem examines a phenomenon that unites two of my obsessions: the role of social media in our lives, and the ways our society talks -- or more often, declines to talk -- about death.
Social networking sites like Facebook are opening up the conversation about death in new ways, including allowing people's profiles to remain even after their death -- a practice that can be therapeutic for friends and family who want to share photographs and messages about a departed loved one. But it also raises questions, from basic issues of privacy (who should be able to view that profile?) and inheritance (who should maintain it?) to farther-out concerns like: should a person be "tagged" at her own wake?
As Kaleem writes, "Facebook, with 1 billion detailed, self-submitted user profiles, was created to connect the living. But it has become the world's largest site of memorials for the dead." Facebook contains the profiles of about 30 million people who have died. It's not quite ancient Rome -- where "Memento Mori" ("Remember Death") was carved on trees and statues -- but the existence of a social media afterlife is one way we are using the latest technology to deal with a timeless fact of life.
And it's not just Facebook. MyDeathSpace.com has a message board where visitors can view and comment on social media profiles of the dead. My Wonderful Life allows the living to plan ahead, offering digital estate planning and even scheduling posthumous emails. As Jed Brubaker, a digital identity scholar at the University of California-Irvine, puts it: "There aren't really any norms around death and social media yet. People are kind of making it up as they go along. But what's known is that this Facebook generation will have more experiences with death than any generation before it."
Elsewhere in the issue, Jon Ward takes us inside the Republican party in the wake of Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama. "Every time a party loses a presidential election, there is a funeral procession that goes on for too long and that brings out all the Chicken Littles," he writes. Ward's conversations with senior GOP aides, think tank leaders, and party activists reveal a party grappling with existential questions: "How will the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement it's meant to embody fix their problems with the poor, the disadvantaged, women and minorities? How will the Republican Party evolve?"
For all the GOP's problems, Ward zeroes in on a larger truth -- one with consequences that go far beyond left and right. Obama's victory over Romney has not exactly put the plight of struggling Americans on the front burner. Bob Woodson, an African-American community leader who has worked with conservatives to fight poverty, points out that "neither party is talking about poor people," and that polices for the poor -- or even an acknowledgment of the poor -- were conspicuously absent from Obama's campaign.
For now, though, Republicans face an uphill battle to even be taken seriously as a party interested in solutions. As The Heritage Foundation's Jennifer Marshall puts it, "We've lacked the narrative that captures the moral imagination of the American public."
This appears in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store. This story appears in Issue 31, available Friday, Jan. 18.
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