Death in a Digital Era: when goodbye is no longer gone

Social Media

Death in a Digital Era: when goodbye is no longer gone

Nida Nizam

by: Nida Nizam

December 22, 2014

When Goodbye is No Longer Gone

facebook-after-death

It’s 2050. A member of your immediate family has just died. You all knew it was imminent but are rendered immobile from the emotional upheaval. You receive a thoughtful, heartfelt message from her in your Facebook inbox saying goodbye.

The formal notice of her death has triggered a complex chain of events. She was prepared; she prepaid for a specific funeral package (Platinum Deluxe Nigiri), and a service picked up her body and will handle the arrangements picking up her body to moving her into a new underground condo. The contents of her last will and final testament have been electronically communicated to all relevant parties, none knowing what the other received, while an obituary was posted automatically.

Your grieving family would normally be run ragged by the responsibilities of hosting and guiding the periphery through the social mores of death, but an expert SWAT team (they are a SWAT team because wearing black is appropriate for Western mourning) arrived on your doorstep and has managed everything from sleeping arrangements to catering for three days. You and your family may grieve freely as a firm specializing in death management swiftly handles your affairs.

Her social media accounts will be turned over according to her wishes (she was hip to the tech world); her Facebook page may become a memorial, her Twitter may release one last message and eventually disappear. You don’t have to make a single decision about what happens to her online self, but what happens to all of the content she generated? Did she own any of it? What happens to the imprint she left online?

In previous articles we’ve discussed the importance of curating and managing your online presence as well as the nature of and reaction to news coverage of Robin Williams’ passing, an occasion providing ample opportunity for an empirical study of the latest phase of digital society’s relationship with death. Now, as social media accounts of the deceased begin to outnumber those of the living, a shift in priorities and policy will determine the topography of our digital landscape and provide an actual answer to one of many versions of the question, “what happens after I die?”

TL;DR: you might get to decide. A re-purposing of the term mortality salience (right out of terror management theory and into this article) frames this discourse quite nicely; an individual’s knowledge that they will one day die has been studied as an impetus for everything from terrorist attacks to financial decisions. The opportunity to actively decide your own digital fate (to a degree) provides an unprecedented prospect for taking control of one’s destiny in light of knowledge that would turn an erstwhile optimist into True Detective’s Rustin Cohle.

Throughout this process, personal and ethical choices will have a resounding impact on those you know. There isn’t very much stopping me from filling up my Buffer or account automatons to keep myself alive online for years. Is that fair? Those are still my thoughts and words, and I’m technically the one that put them there. The only way a person would be able to tell the difference is if they identify an absence of personal growth or sharing of new experiences, though I could probably talk about the finale of Serial for years.

If I died tomorrow, I could remain temporarily frozen in time at age 24. What does that mean for my friends and family? Am I P.S. I Love You-ing them? Did you know I could actually do that to you using DeadSocial? (see below) My dream could be to become a chatterbot and hang out with pretentious dweebs like Smarterchild and active listeners like ELIZA in a state of pseudo-existence, the knowledge of which could bring me no end of comfort in my final days in the meat palace my soul currently resides within. These are the things many of us ponder on Reddit at night, and right now we have the chance to examine the discourse and scholarship on the relationship between death and social technology as it is developing.

What Have We Come Up With So Far?

The process of examining the relationship between social media and death is really just scrutinizing how our use of these tools modifies “traditional” behaviors; as well as exploring the effective integration of the collective’s intrinsic mortality salience into the codified procedures through which we govern the use of social tech. There are three primary inquiries that hundreds of op-eds, articles, and tech websites have sought to resolve over the past ten years, and we can break them into simplified questions that college communications theory majors can use for their final papers:

First, how should we behave around presence of death and mourning on both social and traditional media outlets? What is the new protocol when the subject of death is close at hand, dominating your feeds with viral obituaries or the bereavement of individuals with whom you possess relationships of varying degrees of intimacy? How do you decide which posts to respond to or like when the reactions to the news of someone’s death can vary from “RIP Dad” + a photo to “fuck cancer, it just killed everything I love…” especially when some of these these posters are actually looking for responses or comfort from their wider circle?

How have our traditions morphed into entirely new procedures of behavior, and are those standards appropriately humane? How are people really coping with death online? We are seeing new traditions form with Facebook’s memorialization option, the popularity of Legacy.com, or even the bluntly named “MyDeathSpace.com” where you can discuss specific deaths posted online. This is an entirely normative query, but as cultural boundaries continually warp online, what will it mean to have manners, “be respectful” or possess appropriate “deathiquette” in the era of immediacy?

The second question: what is social media’s role as a catalyst for conversations about death and its impact on our approach and understanding of the subject? Humanity’s historical fear of death has spawned countless and invaluable cultural artifacts personifying this centrifugal tension at the heart of the human condition. Western society arguably fits the into description of a “culture of life,” a moral theological term particularly perpetuated in the teachings of the Catholic Church, predicated upon opposing practices concerning the destruction of human life. Can we confidently say that social media and digital spaces are the final frontier where we confront death’s inevitability; armed with the agency these spaces afford us to decide some aspects of our own fate?

The last question is your hook from above: where does your digital self go when you die? What happens to your visceral imprint upon the digital realm following your departure from the physical plane? (Let’s not get too into whether or not we’re actually physically here…) The short answers can be found over Mashable and HowStuffWorks where they explain how different sites manage your content after you die, or if someone guards your composite digital tomb from trolls. There’s a great graphic by WebPageFX’s Dan Shaffer with a step-by-step explanation of who owns your data, how long until your various accounts are deactivated, if other users can claim your username, what you can do when you lose a friend or family member, and even predictions and scenarios of Facebook’s future as the accounts of the deceased proliferate.

We are writing the long answer as we speak, debate, and make or alert others to our choices about account specifics. We have a precious few examples of individuals elaborating on their preparation to confidently go gentle into that good night, and as these examples increase, so will the efficiency of the processes and methods with which we put our digital affairs in order.

“Digital Demise”

Deadsocial is a social media end of life tool that allows you to say “goodbye” to friends on Facebook and Twitter. You may formulate your very own “digital legacy” with messages that will be saved and sent upon your passing, a choice Lawrence Darani (1951-2014) explains in this video. This is one of many new tools of “death management” we can confidently predict will soon appear on the horizon. We already take out life insurance policies for our loved ones and draw up wills for our assets, so why would we not extend such careful consideration to our own digital correspondence and most importantly, our own personal reflections?

Speaking pragmatically, future study of this unparalleled store of primary data would probably benefit from individuals taking control in terminating output or organizing the final form. Soon you’ll need a digital property lawyer to define “digital assets” like your frequent flyer miles, or whether you actually own anything you’ve posted online that wasn’t scanned or converted from elsewhere. People will probably start up Sunshine Cleaning on the Internet, work as  “death consultants,” or serve as specialists in post-mortem public relations.

All of these hypothetical services would likely benefit those suffering the increasingly stressful and complex workload accompanying someone’s passing. It’s ultimately yet another form of market specialization; the corporatization of “death management.” Media companies need to either formulate or re-write long-term policies to scale their operations and accommodate the ultimate losses amongst their user bases; as a new industry is born on its perpetuity, this might be decisive move operationalizing mortality salience into functional day-to-day affairs.

Sidestepping the Larger Issues

Sure, we avoid deeper questions when framing the conversation solely upon social networks or the Internet. Is technology designed to cope with the inevitable death of the user? Is mortality integrated into the human-computer relationship? If you’re interested, disciplines seeking to answer these questions include mortisensitivity, which aims to practically integrate all of these concepts into traditional user-based design. It’s accompanied by thanatosensitivity, which can be understood as “a non-invasive strategy for better understanding the conceptual and practical issues surrounding death, computing, and human experience” or as the upcoming boss in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

These disciplines operate within the scope of HCI, or “human-computer interaction,” and while there has surely been study of the integration of mortality into the construction of our tools, homes, and societies, we stand at a crossroads where the study of the very same in social media may assist us in all of our theoretical ventures. The questions above pose challenges for every discipline from anthropology to engineering to mortuary science; the data is being generated right now as more and more people are recording their final decisions and messages.

So think about what choices you’re going to make or what you want to happen to all your online accounts and in doing so, save your family some trouble. Jabber about it with your friends at 2 AM, blog about it, just find some way to contribute to the discourse of what all of this means when you’re binging on Orphan Black, eating garbage, and pondering your own mortality. That way, other people might benefit from your butter-filled journey, citing your words in Master’s grant applications as the Romantic carb-laden myth of Sisyphus. Only then will you learn to enjoy yourself, become a master of Twitter, and perhaps figure some stuff out about yourself along the way.

For a general introduction to the Internet and Death, you can always hop over to Wikipedia’s page or read some of the Huffington Post’s compilation of articles on the questions presented here.