At some point in your adult life, birthdays become less about cakes and presents, and instead about that time of year when you feel existential dread about getting older. But it’s not often my own birthdays that trigger thoughts about complexities of aging, but the ones that remind me about life itself.
My father was born on May 12th. Today he would have turned 56, had he not passed away in 1996. When I was in college, my family and I would visit our motherland in Bangkok over the summer break in May, and our tradition was to always visit the temple where my dad’s ashes resided. To let him know we’d come home. We would leave a phuang malai (flower garland) by his burial site and try to find the monk who officiated his funeral so we could say hello. When I was growing up, we used to go to this temple every weekend. My brother and I climbed around the lamp posts, we danced around in the courtyard, and I was always fascinated by a rotary payphone in the hall; an object fast becoming obsolete, but still in use by monks and visitors alike. It was hard for everyone who worked there not to remember us. Bangkok is home, but that temple is where my heart is.
So when my brother and mom went back to Thailand this year without me for the first time in three years, all I could do was journey with them from afar as my brother Instagrammed his way through the travel. But this year, he did something he hadn’t done in the past. He tagged every location he visited, leaving behind breadcrumbs that would lead me to the temple’s location page on Instagram and filling a void I didn’t know existed.
A remote visitation, one image or story at a time
Between 2014 and 2018, Instagram’s user base in Thailand has grown from 1.4 million users to an astonishing 12.4 million. This meant more local users were uploading photos onto the social network, and subsequently tagging all the places they go. Before my brother’s Instagram, I had never thought to search and explore the temple there. (Typing in Thai is hard when you don’t use it every day.) Today, the location page is full of images of visitors touring all the corners of the temple grounds, one image or story at a time. Watching these strangers’ stories, I began to relive my own visits — there was the set of bells that greets you from the left of the entrance; the gold shrine that houses a statue of Buddha before the main building; and the tree trunk behind that shrine, which doubled as an oasis in the middle of the city that housed remains of those who’ve gone to the afterlife. And there was my dad, in his same spot as always. For as long as locals and tourists stopped by the temple, which is located near the popular bar area of Khao San Road, its Instagram location tag would always be populated by strangers who’ve unknowingly helped me visit him with every innocent click of the share button.
Sometimes I wrestle with the idea that for all the negative consequences of social media, there is a selfish part of me that can’t imagine it all going away. I think this is why it is difficult for me to quit Facebook or Instagram. These services began as something that felt personal and intimate, and it’s how I still prefer to use them today. However, as these technology businesses grow, they need to sustain themselves, leading to manipulative dark patterns designed to get you addicted to tech, or the data privacy debacles we have today. As social creatures, humans have an inherent need to share; it’s the data that gets shared and used for corporate profits that make us uneasy. Still, for all the shallowness of social media’s mission to “connect” people, we can’t deny that at the core, apps like Facebook and Instagram have intensified the way we find each other and discover ourselves.
The reality is that there is no objectively good internet company. For as long as everything costs something, we’ll always find ourselves paying for them whether it’s by monetary means or otherwise.
My father was an entrepreneur before he passed. I often wonder what he would have thought of Instagram if he was alive today. He loved taking pictures of us growing up. Would he be the hip kind of dad who gets social media? Would he have constantly asked me how apps worked, and if all the things they were saying in the news were true? Would he have sympathized with the business side of technology? My father died before we even had a computer in our house. He left this earth before he’d ever interacted with the internet.
Before he died, he called me on my seventh birthday from his hospital room. He promised we would have a belated party, and that no matter what happens, he was always going to be with me. He passed away six days later, never knowing that one day, the internet would let me be the one to constantly check up on him.