When we die, our social networks live on. Sometimes that's tragic, but it can be heartening, too.
If his Twitter feed is any indication, conservative provocateur and Internet personality Andrew Breitbart died much like he lived—embroiled in petty mudslinging with some random person. "I called you a putz cause I thought you were being intentionally disingenuous. If not I apologize," he tweeted from his iPad minutes before collapsing in Los Angeles early Thursday morning. The tweet was nothing special, but it was his last, and it has therefore taken on some sort of heightened significance in the public conversation. Dozens of followers retweeted the banal message. ABC News even secured an interview with the last man Andrew Breitbart publicly insulted. "He called me a putz and I said his voice sounded like Dr. Evil and Owen Wilson," the law student dished to ABC.
Breitbart's public persona was particularly active on social media—Fox News included a discussion of his retweeting strategy in its obituary—but he's hardly the only famous deceased person to register a famous final tweet. Heavy D's last tweet was the boring but fortuitous "BE INSPIRED!", but other recently departed celebs left us with more depressing final messages. Jackass star Ryan Dunn's final tweet concerned the debut of his television show on the G4 network. Elizabeth Taylor's last tweet was almost "Every breath you take today should be with someone else in mind. I love you." But then she tweeted, "My interview in Bazaar with Kim Kardashian came out!!!" before dying.
In today's era of public social media mourning, final tweets are treated like famous last words. But depending on the message, they can feel more like being found dead in embarrassing underwear. If I expired this week, my legacy could have been capped with a Justin Bieber retweet or some vagina joke. Before our every little thought was disseminated via the Internet, surviving famous last words were generally reserved for public figures who knew they would soon die, and could prepare to utter something meaningful like "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," or "Everything is an illusion." Now, everyone with an Internet connection stands to have their final status update memorialized, no matter how inane.
You may not think of a page filled with drunk photos and shameless self-promotion as an accurate reflection of your full self, but the fact remains that when we die, our social networks live on. Sometimes, that's tragic. I had a college friend who died unexpectedly and, years later, continued to receive New Year's and birthday wishes on his Facebook page from acquaintances who presumably did not realize he was gone. On this bizarre, living Facebook page, his memory was degraded into a shell of a social construct, an ongoing feed of meaningless pleasantries that did not even require a pulse.
But our fixation on posthumous social media can sometimes be heartening. Famous last tweets have a way of democratizing death—of positioning everyone not as they wanted to be seen but as they really were. If we don't want to be remembered for promoting Kardashians or trading insults with nobodies, maybe we shouldn't align our public personas with those activities in life, either. Then again, I have a feeling that Breitbart's only regret was that he didn't register an insult stronger than "putz."