Digital Immortality: The Deceased on Social Media

Screen Shot 2016-10-23 at 5.00.00 PMOn a daily basis, I receive social media spam emails encouraging me to go open notifications on each platform. See what this person is doing; congratulate this person on the job anniversary; this person just posted for the first time in a long time; say happy birthday to this friend. I delete them instinctually and make a mental note to turn off these email notifications, which I’ll likely never do.

About once a year though, I get one social media spam email that sits in my inbox. It sends chills down my spine that then sucks the air out of my brain and shoots blood to my chest. Every time I receive this notification, I open the email. I open LinkedIn. I view the notification on the site, as if I need to see it in full form to make sure it’s real.

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Pictured is a friend, peer, and colleague from my high school who died on October 20, 2013. He was 20 years old.

They say we should be careful about what we post on the Internet because it could come back to haunt us. What we rarely hear is that what we post can come back to haunt others.

In this social media era, it’s common for many to discover the death of friends online. During the initial period of time following the news of death, social media can be a tool for facilitation and healing. It allows people to send condolences without needing an address for cards or flowers; it allows those grieving to publish a statement to all who may be interested in sending sympathies, sharing stories, or attending services. In the wake of death, social media is a useful tool, bringing people together to show compassion.

The feelings of turmoil that come with birthday and anniversary reminders for the dead shock some, but comfort others. Some feel consolation in viewing an untainted profile, scrolling through posts and pictures on quiet moments when they miss an old friend or loved one. Some feel sickened seeing a profile that can never be touched again. For some, seeing others comment on the profile of the deceased makes it difficult to accept death and move on.

Eventually, for most, time heals all wounds, and the world keeps turning; people go back to their day-to-day lives. What happens to these social media pages and what happens to the profiles of the deceased?

On an ethical scale, there’s no standard for how to deal with the context of death on a digital platform, so social media companies have done their best to provide options. Facebook and Instagram now allow for family members to request accounts be deleted for deceased, or for memorialization, so as to prevent spam. Twitter has fewer options, but sometimes will deactivate accounts if family provides verified proof of death.

A company called DeadSocial works to deal with these questions. DeadSocial provides free tools to help individuals develop a social media will. It allows users to work with the company to create a portfolio of what they would like their online presence to look like after they have died.

The deceased on social media triggers debate about the right to be forgotten. The European Union has passed a right to be forgotten ruling that allows residents to request the removal of Google search results which they feel are outdated. While such rulings are not in place in the US, social media companies have fallen under scrutiny by privacy regulators, families, estate planning industries, and even legislators to make policy decisions and review recommendations on appropriate procedures for the digital remains of the deceased.

Policy by social media platforms will follow in the footsteps of contexts defined by cultural norms, but appropriate contexts can be difficult to circumscribe in the dichotomy between digital communication and the taboo culture of death. The creation of these norms falls into the hands of social media users, who must define how they deal with death online, analyze what best serves the interests of those in mourning, and ultimately respects the life of the deceased.

The question here is not about death, as inevitably, everyone will die, but can we decide if our Internet legacies live forever?

This is a decision future generations will have to determine. Until then, post as though you’ll live forever.

Rima Mandwee

Rima Mandwee is a first-year Masters candidate in the Communication, Culture, & Technology program and the Director of Blog & Web Services for gnovis. Her academic and professional interests revolve around the intersection between public policy, media, and diplomacy, as well as cultural analysis and commentary on social justice and feminism. Rima is also the President and previous Director of Communications on Georgetown University's Graduate Student Government Executive Board.