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Virtual Life and Digital Death

  • Jessica Stahl

Virtual Life and Digital Death

Virtual Life and Digital Death

As social networking websites grow more popular and complex, users develop something like a virtual life online. People meet, argue, have relationships, and mark major life events. But what happens to your digital life when you die?

Robin’s Facebook page reveals her favorite movie as Annie Hall, features videos of nights spent with her friends, and lists her relationship status as “engaged.” In January, Robin shared on Facebook that she had bought her wedding dress, punctuating the post with four exclamation points. When she passed away unexpectedly a few days later, her Facebook page stayed exactly as it was – and still does.

After her death, Robin's Facebook page became a place for friends and family to congregate and grieve together. Jenna Berger, a close friend, says she was glad to still have access to Robin’s Facebook page in the time immediately following her death.

“Right after she died it felt amazing to share memories and pictures of Robin with her loved ones,” says Berger. “Now I keep in touch with some of her close friends, fiancé and mother through Facebook.”

However, Berger adds that now she is less certain that keeping the page available is a good thing. She says that while she is happy to have a way to connect with other mourners, she does not like the way Robin’s profile appears to be frozen in time, exactly as it was the day of her death.

On Robin’s birthday, friends and family posted birthday messages on her page. “I know you are smiling down on us all today,” reads one of the messages shared with Robin’s family and friends on her page.

“I hated how people were almost referring to her as if she were still alive,” says Berger of the birthday greetings. “I think what I didn’t like was how they were saying ‘happy birthday’ – she wasn’t here, so how could it be happy?”

Facebook’s Policy

With more than 400 million active users, Facebook now has a larger population than the United States. And every year, some of those users pass away, leaving their profiles behind.

What becomes of all those profiles raises difficult questions. Facebook instituted an official policy for dealing with the death of a member in October 2009. The policy was developed in response to the Virginia Tech campus shootings, according to spokesperson Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg.

Now, when Facebook is made aware that a member has died, the profile is placed in a memorialized state, which removes certain features like status updates and restricts visibility to confirmed friends.

Memorialized profiles also will not show up in Facebook’s recommendations section. A common complaint in the past has been that Facebook’s auto-generated recommendations may end up suggesting users become friends with or reconnect with a deceased individual.

While keeping a page available may be a comfort to some, it can be a terrible reminder to others. Facebook allows family members to request the profile of a deceased member be taken down entirely. Todhunter-Gerberg says that if two family members have conflicting requests as to whether to remove or memorialize a page, Facebook will take the page down completely.

The company also recommends setting up special memorial pages of groups to remember the deceased, and a search for the word “memorial” on Facebook reveals that many members have availed themselves of that option. In some isolated cases, however, these have been overtaken by "trolls" or spammers, desecrating the online memorial.

Facebook is clearly trying to walk a difficult line in preserving a member’s digital legacy, while also respecting the wishes of family and friends. “But I think that there should be more sensitivity to people who are mourning the loss of someone so young,” says Jenna Berger.

Preparing a Digital Legacy

Eran Alfonta believes we can take action while we are alive to prepare our digital presence to comfort friends and family once we’re gone. Alfonta is the CEO and founder of Willook, a startup company that specializes in helping people create their digital legacies.

The company recently launched a Facebook application called “If I Die” that allows users to prepare videos or letters to be posted to their Facebook walls after their death. According to Alfonta, these types of messages can benefit those who receive them after their loved one has passed away.

Alfonta tested the concept among elderly and terminally ill populations. He says that over the course of testing his perspective on the project “changed from a technical point of view of creating a process that would let you do this to a real understanding of the different populations and the different needs of every population, demography and so on. We understood that it should not be only technical. It should really involve with the emotional benefits for the users.”

Alfonta says the participants in his pilot recorded messages ranging from words of wisdom, to jokes, to untold stories and unfinished business. One participant, a single mother who was going through chemotherapy, recorded a series of messages to be delivered to her 2-year-old daughter each year on her birthday.

“In the past, only kings could build their monuments and pyramids,” says Alfonta. “We see here something that can actually set your digital presence forever, for the future, and it’s available for everybody.”

Bringing Death Home

In a recent blog post for the New York Times, First Lt. Mark Larson talks about finding out through Facebook that an Army friend had been killed in combat in Afghanistan. He argues that social networking is forcing more civilians to confront the human cost of the war, because news of a soldier’s death is more easily spread to a wider network of contacts than ever before.

“You could still go to his profile and see the pictures he’d posted of the nights he spent out before deploying or the hundreds of posts on his wall from grieving friends trying to send a message one last time,” Larson writes of his friend. “In this way such a profile acts as a public memorial, and a welcome one, since its existence reminds all those in his social circle precisely what is at stake in a war that has zero effect on their day-to-day lives.”

Death is rarely easy for those left behind, and people have profoundly different ways of grieving. But while dying may be inevitable in real life, in the cyber-sphere some may live on indefinitely.
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