So I’m about to become known as that woman who researches death in social media.

My dissertation topic is coming together. What a fun little journey (also known as screwing with my mind) this is.

I research social media. I’ve written a paper on the best way to construct a tweet. I watch how people use their streams. I’m interested in how they construct their online lives, communities and identities. The stories (lies) people tell; the release people feel in ‘oversharing’; the flirting; the stupidity; the bravery. How people create, condition, and curate their intertwingled on- and offline lives. I’m the Penn and Teller of social media. (Probably the Penn. Because the other one doesn’t speak. That’s totally not me.

I’m not sure how I fell into the death realm. I’ve decided, though, that this will be my area of adventure for the dissertation. It’s fascinating. While we all know the ‘proper’ behaviours and practices when you physically die (the ulitmate form of identity management), today we need to get our heads around what will happen to your social media representations when you pass away. We haven’t prepared ourselves for this – people have online lives, and these don’t stop when you do.

Facebook initiated a Facebook Memorial Page where loved ones of the deceased can opt to have the page effectively closed, but still visible. It’s getting a heap of flack on that – mainly because it’s difficult to ensure the person moderating the page is who they say they are. Some people think they want their page closed down, others want them to remain. It’s not easy.

I’m considering three areas of death in social media:

1. The appropriation of your social media profile to become akin to a memorial upon your passing. How the community, friends, etc engage with each other, and with the ongoing digital representation of the deceased.

2. People who commit what has become known as ‘virtual suicide’. The closing down of all social media profiles (and commonly, reopening them). This is a great way of controlling identity both on and offline. Check out the suicide machine for a little more of this.

3. Finally, the people who use social media as a part of their offline suicide toolkit. Posting status updates as they say goodbye and end their lives, or live broadcasting it in social media.

Right now I’m engaging with the 1st one. I’ve developed a research proposal to examine Facebook’s Memorial Pages. I’ve got a list of reading as long as my arm – including areas as diverse as post mortem photography and roadside memorials as well as the scant work done in HCI so far in this area – thanatosensitive design, which is what I’m seeking to write in.

Interestingly, one paper says that it’s not trying to say we should design for the dead. I laughed out loud at that. But two weeks later, while walking the dog this morning, I realised that is exactly what we do need to do. We need to design for the dead as well as for the living. (Have I weirded you out yet?) My thinking is that if identity continues in social media after death (even if it’s managed by a loved one, which is common) then there is also agency that continues. We need to create design, spaces and opportunities for the dead to engage. And suddenly dead gets inverted commas around it. ‘Dead’. Because when you die, you don’t really. Jed says this makes me a “freaky weird kind of person.” I’m cool with that.

Yeah, I think you want to invite me to dinner parties. Meanwhile, ponder this – there are over 3 million dead people with Facebook pages. What do you want to have happen to yours when you pass away, and how will you prepare for it?

3 comments

  • Death and online presence is a big and complex topic. Good to someone tackling it! 😉

    Whether it’s how we wish to be represented online following our deaths, the ability of relatives to know that one had an account with money in it somewhere in the world, or just the desire to have one’s various accounts online elegantly closed off so that people know of your demise, there are plenty of things to research around this topic.

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