Dealing with Death Online: The Impact of Social Media on Preparation and the Grieving Process

Since the beginning of time, humans have had to deal with the one inevitable fact of life: it ends. While we have succeeded at postponing our typical “deadline”, this fact remains the same and will likely remain the same for some time to come. Much of our lives are dedicated to accepting, debating and reasoning with death and the existential questions that arise as to what comes after. We are often surprised by death, but we also spend much of our lives preparing for it and dealing with it. However, recently, a new dimension has been added to the preparation and the grieving process, a dimension that has both the power of healing and hurting the loved ones who are left behind:

As a relatively new technology, with an (initially) young user base, social media has not yet had to deal with death as extensively as it soon will. Even so, in the first eight years of Facebook’s existence, an estimated 30 million users died. Approximately 428 users die every hour, 10,237 die every day, and 312, 500 die every month []. This raises a somewhat depressing question: when will there be more profiles of dead users than living ones? If Facebook continues to expand its membership at the same rate this should happen around 2130. However, if Facebook stops growing, dead profiles will outnumber the living by 2065.

This creates logistical and philosophical concerns for social media companies. What do you do with all of this data? What procedures do you put in place to prepare for user death? How do you ensure that your site doesn’t just become a technological graveyard?

As with most technologies, this necessitates a deep understanding of the user base. For many parents, in particular, Facebook can provide a unique opportunity to digitally capture and memorialize their child. Social media accounts can serve as a living continuation of the deceased, an evolving memory book of photos, videos, and writing. People can visit a loved one’s page to scroll through his/her pictures, read and reread his/her thoughts, and, perhaps most importantly, connect to and grieve with fellow mourners. These online spaces often surpass, in life, their users, as friends and family continue to share photos, memories, and experiences and celebrate birthdays and other occasions.

However, when handled poorly, these spaces can quickly turn into a source of distress for mourners. The automation of social media sites means that they can become a place of creepy suggestions or unwanted reminders. For example, they may “suggest” people to friend/follow/like who have already passed or use a deceased’s previous online activity for advertisement purposes. Those now-deceased users who were afflicted with a computer virus before they passed will find themselves continuing to “post from the grave” – a disturbing and upsetting phenomenon for their friends and family. Over the past few years, highly emotional legal battles have occurred over the ownership of deceased user’s profiles. Social media companies are left in a difficult position: they can’t violate their own privacy restrictions but have no way of deciphering if, and to whom, the dead user wanted their information shared. How much access do you grant a grieving family? As the legal system attempts to modernize itself, conflicts have arisen between state and federal law resulting in lengthy and costly court preceding’s. While some companies have attempted to alleviate these issues by implementing their own policies, the law still finds itself ill equipped to handle this pervasive problem. Alongside this issue, each year identity thieves abuse the personal information of more than 2.5 million dead people []. How do these companies protect their dead users whilst also providing for grieving loved ones?

The above infographic outlines the current policies of major online service providers. Of all of these, Google is the only one that allows the user to plan for the inevitable. Their “Inactive Account Manager”, described above, solves logistical issues of data space (with the download and delete function) and legal issues of ownership and access (with their explicitly outlined “will” of sorts). In my opinion, this would be a fantastic solution for many companies such as LinkedIn, Yahoo, Amazon, and Apple.

However, I don’t think that sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram should implement this policy. These sites serve a different, more personal purpose as both memory books and places of community. I believe that to delete these accounts would almost be to prescribe a second death. Instead, I think that these companies should implement Facebook’s policy of “memorializing” accounts. This essentially freezes the account (securing it from hackers/virus posts and removing it from features such as birthday reminders and “people you may know”) whilst still allowing current friends to post to the page and tag the deceased in photos. Like many other online service providers, Facebook requires official documentation of proof of death to do this. This will prove to be cumbersome for many users (especially those in developing countries) but, since memorialization is permanent, I believe it is a necessary security measure. Unfortunately, to download content from Facebook you still need to obtain a court order. I would suggest that, in regards to this issue, Facebook policy combines with Google’s policy of an “Inactive Account Manager” to avoid the added stress and cost of time in court. I think that these two models (in combination) could prove to be particularly useful for many platforms. However, as social media companies attempt to adapt to their aging (and dying) populations, many practical, legal, and philosophical bumps will undoubtedly mark the road.

Fundamentally, social media has allowed us to transcend typical social boundaries of time and space. We have formed a second self, an “extension of the mental self” that people can interact with regardless of consent, physical presence…or pulse?[]. If we carry out this logic to an extreme, it only makes sense for this self to continue on posthumous – but how? The issue of online death continues to grow as more and more users leave their digital legacies online. Pragmatic and emotional anxieties surrounding death are enhanced by the growing importance of social media in our lives. We’re now advised to make an inventory of our digital assets, figure out what we want to happen to our stuff, and assign someone to be our digital executor (despite the fact that much of this violates service agreements). Companies such as Password Box’s “Legacy Locker” provides a tool to make this process easier and many other companies have been formed to offer similar services. Other companies are taking it a step further. “DeadSocial” allows its users to compose a series of messages that will be sent out (posthumous) via Facebook and Twitter at specific times. “LivesOn” uses twitter bots powered by algorithms to study your patterns and create a personal digital afterlife so that “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”.

As is often the case, the technology is developing faster than we are able to analyze the potential effects on our society. It is unclear just how these new companies, and the policies implemented by social media services, will impact those who are mourning but it is certainly clear that they will have an impact.

Additional Thoughts:

Will my great, great grand children be able to see my Facebook profile? Will it replace the traditional photo album? Will it continue to post on my behalf forever? How will the sheer number of profiles be managed? Or will Facebook soon simply be used as a memorial site, to remember and reflect on loved ones?

“For Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Centre in Massachusetts, sites such as DeadSocial are a “digital extension” of people leaving letters to be read after they die. For her, apps that create artificial messages on behalf of the deceased are more problematic. “What do we do if someone uses this new extension of time in a way that torments or stalks its receivers?” asks Rutledge. “Death is the ultimate lack of accountability.” And if the future of social media platforms is one haunted by digital ghosts in the machine, would you still log on?”


Works Cited:


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