The Instagram Obituaries of the Young Manchester Victims

A vigil in Manchester last week. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times
A vigil in Manchester last week. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

When you type Olivia Campbell’s name into Facebook’s search bar, it automatically suggests adding “Manchester” to the end of it. Seemingly, a lot of people have been looking her up, and her Facebook page — now listed as “Remembering Olivia Campbell” — is filled with comments from strangers and friends alike, sending prayers to her family. Scroll down to before we knew she was one of the 22 victims of Monday night’s Manchester Arena attack, and you’ll see her boyfriend, Lewis Brierley, posted a photo of them together, saying he was praying for her safety.

His profile photo, of him and Ms. Campbell together, has a Union Jack heart on it with “Manchester” scribbled across. Scroll even farther and Ms. Campbell stops being the victim of a mass murder in a public space and again becomes a 15-year-old girl. She played a game called Bingo Blitz and liked relatable memes and “Orange Is the New Black.”

It’s a natural urge to try to understand the lives of the people who die senselessly, deaths rooted in the agony of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and little more. The internet has provided a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of many of the victims of the Manchester attack. A handful were teenage girls or young women. Because that’s who goes to see Ariana Grande in concert; there’s no subtlety in who the bombers were targeting.

Of the girls who died this week, a few left brief but detailed records of their lives on the internet. Georgina Callander, 18, liked the YouTube beauty vloggers LucyAndLydia. (She was sad to miss them in Liverpool because she was going to Manchester for the Ariana Grande concert.) Judging by the public photos on her Facebook page, 17-year-old Chloe Rutherford was really great at drawing a dramatic eyeliner wing, and she seemed to love her boyfriend. (Both of them were killed in the attack.)

The violence of the attack, or even the mental gymnastics required to think deeply about it, is sometimes too heavy and dark to address head-on. Looking through the lives of seemingly content young people is an indirect way to engage with an otherwise unapproachable evil. Going through these accounts feels routine, like when you find an attractive stranger on your Instagram Discover page. The difference is they’re not going to post anything else. You’re seeing a through line from beginning to end, all cataloged for you by a platform intended to celebrate existing and doing and liking and living.

Interest in young girls killed or affected by tragedy isn’t a new phenomenon — we’ve always tried to mine their lives to understand who they were before their tragedy. We do this with girls killed in domestic assaults, or kidnapped, or almost anyone who died before we think it was their time. Now we have more and more access into their personal lives in the age of near-perpetual documentation. If you want to know what version of themselves they put forward publicly, it’s easy enough: Several of these girls posted about themselves, gave you selfies and Facebook posts and tweets. Indeed, the only one of them who left nearly no trace of herself online is Saffie Rose Roussos. She was only 8.

Teenage girls rarely get control, not in life and certainly not in death. Teenagers document their lives — and, frankly, so do adults — because it gives them a kind of agency over their own narratives. No one gets to tell you what your story is if you tell it yourself. The very things we throw back at teenage girls as noxious self-indulgences, from selfies to the recording of daily minutiae, are the things we look for when unexplainable tragedy hits.

No one is better equipped to speak for you, even after your death, than you. Through photos and posts and inside jokes, these people born in the 1990s and 2000s who died far, far sooner than anyone could have predicted wrote their eulogies for us. The details are often slim and seemingly irrelevant — and ultimately, only represent a curated version of themselves — but they’re a reminder that these were real people we lost.

Ms. Callander liked “Mamma Mia!” Ms. Campbell liked “Family Feud.”

We’re not looking at their lives in order to remember them, not really. We’re looking so we can try to regain control after life is set off-kilter by an attack that feels random and yet frighteningly close. When was the last time you went to a concert? Or just anywhere with a lot of people? When was the last time you felt safe going outside? Do you send your teenage daughters out, together, in spaces that you once considered safe? We dig through the trivial details of their lives to find what makes us similar and what sets us apart. Tragedy is always marked by the same question: Can this happen to me?

Maybe it’s just curiosity: We have the end of a story, so we want to get the beginning as well. Our mourning can get more specific, so they’re not just girls killed in a public space but girls who had goals and friends and interests. Girls who were funny or bubbly or eager or smart. It doesn’t exactly make us feel better, but if we can’t have answers for the why, we can at least answer the who.

Death leaves people feeling panicked and powerless. It’s easy, then, to use someone’s final published moments as proof of something: That they were a good person, or that they were troubled, or that there’s any meaning to be mined from the wreckage of loss. After Manchester, we’re doing the same to the young victims who left us a record of their lives. It’s not solely to let them regain some control of their own narratives, but it’s also for us: Maybe, by looking at what they spun out into the world, we can get some respite from the chaos, too.

Scaachi Koul, a culture writer for BuzzFeed, is the author of the book One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter.

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