It’s always a bit of a shock to occasionally come across them again, when I’m using an app that selects friends at random, or to see them actually post an update, via a relative. But their accounts are generally used every year on the anniversary of their death, for fundraising, or to allow for friends and family to write messages of love; just to say they’re missed. It’s important, as it means the departed can ‘live on’.
Even on Twitter there’s something morbidly fascinating and romantic about seeing someone’s last tweets. Their final goodbye to the world before the inevitable discovery of and commentary surrounding their death – Peaches Geldof’s were particularly haunting, of course, making reference to her late mother, Paula Yates.
In this sense you could argue that the internet is the single most important innovation in our lives, literally, because it blurs the line between life and death.
So, now the flurry of mentions, Facebook statuses and profile pictures about the Paris attacks has died down, with active public interest – according to Google trends – decreasing by about 90 per cent over the last two weeks, what legacy has been left, online?
Social media’s response to any significant news event follows a relatively simple formula. Opinion, second opinion, trolling, new news, hysteria, backlash against hysteria, parody, and then repeat, before our attention spans wane (eight seconds, as widely reported) and the world moves on. In fact a parodic story from The Daily Mash entitled ‘“It’s not about what you think it’s about”, say clever people’ summed it up quite well.
Even for an unequivocal tragedy, there’ll be pointless digital debate about how sad we should be: the term ‘tragedy hipster’ was even coined to describe those who favoured to mourn the more ‘niche’ international disasters. And our voyeurism grew: the second most searched term relating to the Paris Attacks was ‘Paris attacks video’. By anybody’s standards, this is internet behaviour at some of its worst.
But amongst the social media rubble was a ray of light – a Mashable Project – that serves to reinforce the real value that the internet can add: remembrance.
The @ParisAttacks account, using the hashtag #enmémoire tweeted 140 characters with an image of every individual that was killed in Paris on 13 November, with each memory having been shared by the public between one and two thousand times. And so in the same way that a roadside vigil or bunch of flowers at a gravestone can act as a promise that the deceased will never be forgotten, so too does the internet act as a virtual celebration of those no longer with us, forever archived and accessible in cyberspace.
The relationship between the internet and death is complex to say the least. At Mindshare’s recent Huddle event, Thomas Hirschmann, digital director for Mindshare in the UK introduced Nigel Hartley – chief executive officer at Earl Mountbatten Hospice – for a session on ‘death, creativity and the internet’.
With over 25 years’ experience of ‘end of life’ care Nigel has seen more deaths than many of us ever will or could imagine, and over the last 10 years he’s noted how the internet is increasingly playing a role in people’s last wishes, sometimes to the extent that it can be an individual’s only last wish. One man he cared for, named Paul, specifically requested he be filmed during the last days of his life, as he died of a terminal illness, going blind in the process. He asked to be filmed so that the content could be uploaded to YouTube, and for Nigel and his colleagues to share this video with as many viewers as possible. This was Paul’s way of leaving a legacy, and it’s a new tradition unique to social media.
This dynamic is being recognised by the digital industry. Over the last few years other organisations and platforms have been created specifically to deal with death.
Sites such as Virtual Memorial Garden are digital spaces that act as online cemeteries, where family and friends can leave messages as tribute to their loved one’s lives.
In addition there’s a number of start-ups that are realising the need for digital death services – Dead Social is an end of life planning tool that enables you to pre-plan posts on specific dates, scheduling notes to be distributed on specific dates after you’ve gone. And the Digital Legacy Association formalises this by working with charities, hospices and hospitals to help those dying to understand the online options available, to help them live on. So in many ways – especially in secular societies – the internet is beginning to replace religion by providing the closest thing we have to a tangible afterlife, protecting the memories of those who have died and allowing some level of ongoing communication.
As the audience, our options to save the world are limited. Changing your profile picture won’t do anything destroy Isis, sharing an article isn’t going to stop bombs and posting a status saying “something must be done” doesn’t actually do anything, as much as we really do mean it. But what social media can do is help celebrate and share, remember the good, rather than perpetuate the bad, and this is one of the best, most human things that tech can achieve.
When used properly the web can help us become greater people, tell stories of human kindness, petition, raise money, essentially act together for a common good in a way that has only been really possible this century, making it the best alternative to religion I’ve ever encountered. And the more digital platforms and startups can contribute to this positivity, the more positive a place the internet (the world?) and even the afterlife can be.