Digital Footprints

NOTE: Some names and identifying details have been changed for the privacy of the individuals involved.

A few months ago, a friend of mine sent me a picture he had snapped while traversing a beach on the California coastline. It was a double-exposure of footprints in the sand, the waves just touching them and washing them away. In the distance, at the end of the tracks, was the ghostly figure of a semi-transparent woman running away from the camera. I found it striking, but not nearly so much as recently.

In December of 2006, one of my fellow alumni killed himself, violently exiting this world courtesy of a handgun. Let’s call him Mark.

In school, I hadn’t known him very well. There was the occasional class we shared and some brief conversations we had, but that was it. We ran in different circles.

When I heard the news through a friend of a friend of his I was shocked but not really impacted. It did haunt me a bit, since this would be the fourth member of our class that had died, and it brought up all these thoughts of mortality and the fragility of life. For me, I had to cope with only my own philosophical meanderings and existential questions; for his family and friends, I couldn’t imagine how horrible it must have been.

I’ve counseled people who were severely depressed before, and I don’t wish for anyone to have to suffer through that, as I had once done. Unfortunately, it does happen; we need only recognize the signs of it.

I decided I needed to see what my fellow classmates were saying about this tragedy, so I went snooping around the usual internet haunts. Not finding much (the news was still fresh), I Googled Mark’s name and stumbled upon an online profile of his. He was, apparently, a frequent MMOG player, partaking in World of Warcraft and several others, not to mention his high frag ratio for Counter-Strike and others like it. It was a whole side of him I hadn’t known or seen.

The great surprise, however, was his MySpace page. It was strange to be there, seeing his words speak as if he were still around and might update his blog later in the day.

“Hi, I’m Mark. I currently work with my dad at his manufacturing company and plan on starting my own after college.” It was bizarre to read these carefree words for the future and yet know they would not come to fruition.

Though I didn’t know him well, I had an idea of who he was. I learned about him through friends over the years, and through our casual conversations. He was the typical high school jock but without the self-important asshole factor. He was kind to his friends. Girlfriends stayed around for awhile, and he remained friends with them after breakups. (Melissa, his most recent ex, was the first to post.) This was the kind of person he was. It made me wish I had gotten to know him better, despite whatever pain I would be feeling now.

I scanned his pictures and discovered one that was taken just days before he died. He was staring directly at the camera, his blue eyes catching light from a nearby window, a small smile on his face. I wondered, was there sadness in that gaze?

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I decided it wasn’t worth thinking about and clicked back to his main page, only to discover something even more uncanny: The comments section was filled with the sorrow of his friends and family. This didn’t surprise me, of course; but what I hadn’t expected was the way in which they were commenting.

“Oh my God, Mark, i cant believe it! i was going to cook u dinner later this week. this is so awful.”

“Hey Mark…just heard. I just wanted to say you’ll be missed by so many people…”

“mark, u were my boy and u always treated everyone with repect and i dunno what im going to do without u man, ill miss u. i cant wait to see u again”

They were all writing as if he were upstairs, logging onto his computer and checking out what his friends had to say to him. As if, somehow, MySpace had become a portal for afterlife communication. Some were even just joking around, like he had moved overseas:

“one day every one will meet again….and when i get off parole, im gonna blaze a fatty for you, lol”

The imagery was funny and sad all at the same time. I could imagine him and his comrades smoking up in a basement rec room somewhere, laughing and talking of how they got messed up last weekend and tipped over a cow (as is an occasional drunken pastime in Ohio). It reminded me of my more adventurous evenings with my friends, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought.

It brought out so much in me to read all the myriad things they had to say to him. But it was more than just some of the casual ways they were “talking” with him, it was how MySpace was an epitaph now. And not just that, either. His gaming page, his number of “frags,” the messages he left on the pages of his friends and family. These words – sometimes stupid, often amusing – were his digital legacy, blazing a trail of that which was uniquely him across the internet.

The comments continued with people who had carried his coffin, writing out that “it helps that i got to carry u, just like i know if it was me, u wouldve carried me to my grave.” Why did these people, having been to the funeral, feel the need to post these words on this page of intangible bits and bytes? Were they thinking it would be more likely to reach him, that talking to the sky or a photograph would have been less substantial somehow? Perhaps it was all catharsis, a way to remove the pain and pretend it was all right. After all, how could it not be, with that frozen, big-toothed grin of his staring back at you.

It would be like getting that girl on the sand to come back for another picture, if only to get a better look at her. And if you can’t do that, you’re just fighting the tide, trying to make sure the ocean doesn’t wash away all that’s left.

Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] Gmail [dot] com.

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