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If our digital selves are now extensions of our physical beings, then we can see Facebook as the biggest cemetery on Earth. Two years ago, when the number of Facebook users hit one billion, there were already an estimated 30 million “posthumously persistent” profiles of dead people on the world’s most popular social-networking site.
Last year, two radically-contrasting media stories appeared in the same week. An Australian father spoke of how he would never dream of removing his dead son’s profile, even though cyberbullying had contributed to his suicide. The profile felt like a comforting “hologram” of his son.
A mother in Brazil also made the news: she had petitioned the courts to order Facebook to delete the profile of her daughter, whose many friends frequently posted messages and photographs. She could not bear this, describing the profile page as a “wailing wall”. Both online and off, individuals vary tremendously in how they grieve.
The digital legacy left behind can be a vivid, accurate and evocative representation of the lost person. This can help bereaved people to connect with much-needed support and comfort, and to continue some kind of bond with the deceased. On the other hand, the continued existence of such profiles can be experienced as deeply disturbing. As an academic interested in the intersection of death and technology, I watch with fascination as society re-examines and recalibrates its expectations and practices around grief in the digital age.
Facebook is now a primary means of death notification. This troubles many, but we cannot turn back the clock. We are hyper-interconnected; we can upload and download information at will; our networks are often faster than police notification processes. However we may view the phenomenon of death notification on Facebook, it just is. There are notable benefits, to include immediate connection with the community of mourners at any time, from any place.
The balance of power has shifted. Historically, the family was the inner circle. They controlled access to information about the deceased, to their photographs, to their correspondence. The era of social networking, however, is the era of the ‘friend’. Where the person’s privacy settings excludes key family members, friends may be in a position of deciding whether to give family access. It is immediate family, however, who have the right to request the profile be taken down altogether, an act that can be deeply traumatising to other mourners. Although these persistent digital “selves” have not existed for long, many people now expect them to be there and rely on them in working through their grief. Bereaved individuals interviewed for my research had one overriding fear: profile removal. “If we lost it,” said one, “it would be like losing him all over again.”
Profiles not placed into memorialised status “behave” just like other profiles. Birthday notifications occur; items appear in the news feed that reference the profile (“so-and-so posted on [your dead friend]’s Timeline”). When access is in the palm of one’s hand via mobile technologies, reminders of a dead friend may occur at times and in places that feel difficult. Some find it comforting, others may be deeply disturbed.
We are sometimes placed in the position of deciding how to manage our relationships with dead friends’ profiles. If we “defriend” – which may feel complex in itself – it may be irreversible. It we later change our minds, our friend is no longer alive to respond to a new friend request.
Interactions with a dead person’s profile may evoke distress in others. Parents may worry about their child poring over a dead friend’s profile. They may not understand or relate to social networking, and may not know about theories of bereavement like “continuing bonds”. Bereavement professionals who are educated about technology can help family members understand what is happening.
Research to date suggests that interacting with dead people’s Facebook profiles is a common mourning practice, which may include frequent visits to the profile over a considerable time. The belief that communications reach the dead is an article of faith for many. The connection to the dead as experienced on Facebook may feel stronger than that felt anywhere else, via any other means. Technologically-mediated mourning has become a normal part of the landscape of grief, and fits neatly within existing bereavement theories. The more things change, the more things stay the same.