Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Digital life after death

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine passed away after a short illness. A sad event for all who knew her but for me this was the first time that someone I knew prepared us for her passing via Facebook and Twitter. The first I knew was a Facebook post with a photo of her from the hospital bed and the stunning news that she was preparing for a journey of no return. There were a few other posts until the tragic announcement of her passing was posted on her account. These posts haunted me for days and even though we'd only met face-to-face twice at conferences our discussions on social media created a bond that would never have been possible in pre-digital days. Those who criticise Facebook as simply a channel for trivia and self-indulgence fail to acknowledge the enormous potential for sharing, strengthening friendships and simply keeping in touch with each other. I felt part of a farewell process and all the messages of support and sympathy that accompanied the posts on Facebook showed how powerful the medium can be.

This is echoed in a BBC article by Brandon AmbrosinoFacebook is a growing and unstoppable digital graveyard, where the author describes how Facebook keeps the memory of a departed aunt alive by providing a digital memorial which can be visited by family and friends. There are today tens of millions of dead Facebook users and the number increases by an estimate 8,000 per day. If no-one is able to access your account and turn it into a memorial page then your digital life will continue with Facebook reminding your contacts of your birthday and so on, something that can be distressing to many. Just as we all need to take active responsibility for our digital footprints when alive we also need to plan for our digital death. You need to pass on your passwords to your next of kin and leave instructions on what they should do with your different accounts. If managed well your Facebook page becomes a place of remembrance providing insights into your life and personality that no other medium can emulate.

As I’ve told my mother, my grandchildren may be able to learn about her by studying her Facebook profile. Assuming the social network doesn’t fold, they won’t just learn about the kinds of major life events that would make it into my mom’s authorised biography. They’ll learn, rather, the tiny, insignificant details of her day to day life: memes that made her laugh, viral photos she shared, which restaurants she and my father liked to eat at, the lame church jokes she was too fond of. 

Social media have taken a central role in our lives and consequently become an important aspect of our deaths. We can choose to ask a relative to simply delete everything or we can ask them to preserve your memory as a place of solace and grief for those who live on. As I write this post my departed colleague's Facebook account has posted an invitation to a remembrance meeting of friends and relatives. I can't attend but I still feel part of a process that would not have been possible without social media, indeed a friendship that would never have existed without the net.

In Facebook, all places are present, all times are now. My Aunt Jackie exists in this medium just as I do. In a way, there is no moving on without her. There’s no moving on without any of the millions of dead Facebook users.

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