The Debrief: They say that by the end of this century the number of dead users on Facebook will outnumber the living. Increasingly people mourn the loss of their loved ones online. Are we thinking enough about the digital life we will leave behind us?
I think about him every now and then. I remember that time, over a decade ago, when we snogged for about 5 hours in secret at the back of a coach on a school trip when we were 14 and nobody was looking. I remember that he has died.
Death leaves a hole in life, in the shape of the person who’s gone missing. While you might get used to their absence the gap left by the lack of them never quite gets filled or forgotten, it just stays there. Everything about them remains in a state of stasis – as they were when you last saw or spoke to them – while life moves on and drags you with it.
It’s normally Facebook that prompts me to start thinking about all of this. The best part of ten years has passed since my old friend died after a long and incredibly premature, hard-fought battle with cancer but many of our mutual friends still post on his wall. Messages like ‘missing you bro’ and ‘thinking of you today’ regularly pop up in my feed, along with throwback pictures of nights out or 18th birthday parties and, occasionally, a picture of a tatoo somebody has got to commemorate his all-to-short life. Time, on his Facebook wall, like those of many others who have died, is frozen and those of us who hover on his page for a while can only look back. I have not posted on his wall since he died. I’m not sure why, I’ve thought about following the herd and sharing my condolences but, for some reason, I’ve always stopped short.
Death, despite it’s inevitability, is always a shock for the living. Even when we know it’s coming. This is, mostly, because we spend our lives trying to cheat it, deny it and ignore it. However, the Internet is alive with death – in his absence he serves as a constant reminder of our enduring presence. His death, enshrined on Facebook, serves to reinforce our lives, everything that’s happened in the time since he died and all the things he hasn’t been around for.
Facebook has over one billion users and, according to researchers, 10,000 of them die every day. As our generation ages, the likelihood of people we know well and love dying one day in real life but remaining online becomes more and more real. One day, before this century draws to a close, they say, there will be more dead than living users on the site.
The protocol for online death hasn’t quite caught up with life’s inescapable outcome. In 2013 Google launched a tool which allowed users to decide what happens to their data after death. Last year Facebook made it possible for relatives to deactivate or memorialise the profiles of their loved ones, they also announced a policy which allows you to designate a ‘legacy contact’, who can pin a post to your timeline after your death – such as a funeral announcement.
Other social networks approach it differently: Twitter will delete your profile if you are inactive for six months while your LinkedIn account will remain untouched, unless somebody submits a request to close it on your behalf. You may be gone but, in theory, friend requests, photo tags, happy birthdays, event invites and even job offers could continue to roll in.
The fact that our online selves will endure long after we are gone can have both positive and negative implications. For families, friends and partners of the deceased this can actually make losing a loved one even more difficult. Posts by others on their wall can be painful reminders. Equally, the can serve as more positive memorials. You may think of the content on your social media accounts as of little consequence to you, but you never know what value it might hold for someone should the most unfortunate circumstances, beyond your control, occur.
Dr Paul Coulton, a researcher from the University of Lancaster, who has looked into death in the digital age and the ways in which western mourning practices are changing online, says ‘in today’s digital age, when we die we often leave behind a digital legacy. Relatives are no longer only considering what to do with books, tea sets, vases and toolboxes but they are also thinking about online social remnants such as digital photos, videos, status updates and emails.’
As Selina Ellis Gray, a digital designer and researcher who specialises in the use of technology within sensitive contexts such as bereavement, puts it ‘our deaths are now followed by the slow decay of a massive body of data…’ Death, itself, may be relatively sudden but mourning is a slow process. Sorting through somebody’s affairs, coming to terms with the loss of them and gradually readjusting. Recently someone else I knew, but wasn’t close to, at school died suddenly. My news feed was full, for several months, of heartfelt and deeply personal messages sent by his girlfriend to his wall as she grieved. I was moved whenever they appeared in my feed, once to the point of tears. The posts appeared four or five times daily to begin with, gradually tailing off. However, eventually, I had to unfollow his profile because I felt like a voyeur bearing witness to somebody else’s deeply personal grief and private pain whenever I logged into Facebook to see what time the event I was attending that evening began.
Jessica Mitchell, National Helpline Manager for Cruse bereavement Care, says ‘everyone grieves differently and some people like to share their feelings, including online, more than others. People need to find the ways that are best for them to express their grief. Expressing feelings online can be a way of keeping a person’s memory alive and a way of accessing support from friends and family.’
Writing to a lost loved one is, she says, ‘commemorative’ and can help to ‘keep a connection with the person who has died.’ However, she points out, everyone will do it differently, ‘some people may wish to commemorate the person who has died by, for example, keeping a collection of some of their special possessions, keeping a photo album or writing down their memories’, these activities can happen both on and offline.
The new mode of mourning which has emerged on Facebook is highly personal, intimate and yet, wholly, public. Somehow, despite being something we can all relate to, such public grieving, shows of emotion and performative mourning jars online. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference, I rarely share emotions online but, perhaps, it’s because until fairly recently unlike elsewhere in the world mourning in the west had become very private. Grief is internal, part of your inner world, while mourning is its outer manifestation. As Coulton and Ellis Gray noted ‘until the social media boom the popular understanding was that public mourning was in retreat in the west’ both socially but also because of the decline of religion.
Death is confrontation with non-existence so it’s a surreal thing to try and get your head around – that our digital avatars will outlive our IRL selves. When you die, as with my former friend, your Facebook profile remains. It serves as a kind of digital grave which people can visit easily, check in with privately and share thoughts on, if they so wish, publically. As more and more people pass away will Facebook become a kind of digital graveyard, populated by those who were once?
With social media being only a decade old we’re in unchartered territory, the path ahead marked for us by funeral selfies, elegiac Facebook statuses, RIP tweets, online shrines and Insta memorials.
Despite the fact that we share more of our lives online, effectively in public, than ever before and store our memories in a figurative digital cloud, few of us have prepared for our digital afterlife. Today 94% of adults in the UK have online accounts which they use as part of their everyday lives, according to Co-operative funeral care 75% of those have no plans for their online accounts in the event of their death.
If the dead were once remembered by the living through memento mori, the physical objects they left behind, surely, the digital records we leave now, the online trail of everything we ever chose to post, text, tweet and email throughout our lives, is just as valuable.
It doesn’t feel like we are taking the question of how we treat that information seriously, or making provisions for what should happen to it after we have gone. This is a growing issue to the extent that entire consultancies are being set up to look into it, like The Digital Beyond. By the same token, it’s understandable that during the most difficult times people may go online to express their grief and perhaps we need better ways of offering them support.
Social media has changed how we live, so it follows logically that it has changed how we die. Loss, especially of a loved one, ruptures the lives of those left behind. It disrupts life and forces us to confront something we’d all rather ignore. There is no right or wrong way to morn and there is no easy or ‘normal’ way to grieve.