Opinion
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    Alex Beam

    A matter of virtual life and death

    On Nov. 17, writer Scott Eric Kaufman posted this message on Facebook: “I’m dead — well, not yet. Still sorting it out. But I’m entering an end-of-life facility at the end of the week, to die in Houston. It’s been fun, but such fun can only last so long — time to get to the difficult business of dying.”

    Kaufman, a talented academic blogger and social critic, died four days later, at age 39.

    On a less funereal note, “Christian Mom blogger” Glennon Doyle Melton just announced on her Momastery blog that, three months after ditching her husband, she is dating retired soccer star Abby Wambach.

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    Melton’s new relationship, she confides on Facebook, is heavenly: “We have family dinners together — all six of us — and Abby cooks. (She is an AMAZING chef because Jesus loves me.) We go to the kids’ school parties together. We are a modern, beautiful family.”

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    I don’t want to trivialize Kaufman’s suffering, or make light of Melton, the author of “Love Warrior,” an Oprah Book Club pick. (OK, that second part isn’t entirely true.) But both illustrate the larger point, about people living in public, on the Internet.

    The great allure of virtual reality is that it isn’t real. No writer ever got a bad review in their Facebook feed; all pets do cute tricks and then go to heaven. If you visit enough curated social spaces, you could become convinced that Hillary Clinton “really” won the presidential election, or, conversely, that she and George Soros have been operating a global sex trafficking ring from the back room of a pizza parlor.

    Children are always above average on the Internet, especially mine. Don’t believe me? I have 1,200 “friends” who will back me up.

    About a decade ago, an immersive virtual reality world called Second Life became an object of fascination. Over two million people supposedly chose avatars, or online personae, and visited restaurants, shopped in stores, took classes, and so on. Second Life had an overcrowded, virtual “Amsterdam,” where, it was explained to me in 2007, “People solicit sex.”

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    So when did Second Life become Real Life? Because now people seem perfectly comfortable “living” online, which is tantamount to not living at all. If you don’t have a real life, it may not be too late to get one. The problem with real life, alas, is that you don’t look like that 15-year-old picture you posted on your social media profile. Pets and people do die, sometimes in terrible circumstances, and there is no guarantee that they go to heaven. Friends, as opposed to “friends,” are hard to come by.

    Another problem with real life is that it isn’t always on, like that mesmerizing blue screen on your tablet or smartphone. Life is “off” a lot of the time. Nothing is happening, and you have to deal with it.

    Perhaps you have seen the HBO documentary “Everything Is Copy,” about the talented writer Nora Ephron. Ephron was a successful, sparkling over-sharer — about her marriages, her breasts, her orgasms — until she wasn’t. She told everyone everything, except about her acute myeloid leukemia, which killed her, at age 71.

    Her friends didn’t know she was sick, much less dying.

    “She’s the one who said, ‘There is no privacy,’ ” a surprised Meryl Streep recalls in the film. “ ‘Forget privacy, it’s gone.’ And this is the most fascinating thing in the world to me, because she achieved a private act in a world where the most superficial parts of the most intimate acts are everywhere.”

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    Death as a private act. What a bold, analog idea.

    Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.