For many of us, the Internet’s relationship to death has been simply the convenience of consulting a funeral home’s site, to find out the particulars.
But social media have transformed all that. For example, as Internet communications specialist Nicola Wright notes at First Monday,
At present, there is no consensus as to how social media company policies on deceased user accounts are handled, an area that is further muddied by legal issues of ownership and privacy.
Sounds pretty boring, right? Until we consider this: At one time only family members would likely have keepsake photos or journals of a deceased grandmother. Just about anyone may have them now, on line, for whatever reason—and visible to the whole world. Can that person be ordered to take them down? It’s a legal grey area at present.
This is one of the differences between material entities and informational entities. When Grandma dies, who is to get the Royal Doulton china? Her lacework? If she left no instructions, this must be decided between daughters and granddaughters. Only one of them can get each thing. But a theoretically infinite number of copies of her digitized photos and journal entries could be on line for everyone to see and use – for better or worse.
Some of that is just common sense, of course. But then it gets weird:
Posthumous scheduling services, such as Dead Social and If I Die, offer the ability to posthumously schedule social media posts. Taking this one step further, Lives On offers to continue a deceased person’s Twitter account posting updates based on an algorithm on how they have used Twitter while living.
So we could be in touch with an algorithm of a cousin who died two years ago…?
This Friday a leading journal of the Internet, New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, will publish a special issue on how the Internet changes bereavement, Online Memorial Culture: Death and Dying in the Digital Age. It will be free to view online until April 30.
Here are some of the articles we might want to catch:
New mourners, old mourners: online memorial culture as a chapter in the history of mourning
“The story God is weaving us into”: narrativizing grief, faith, and infant loss in US evangelical women’s blog communities
Death ends a life, not a relationship: timework and ritualizations at Mindet.dk
Continuing social presence of the dead: exploring suicide bereavement through online memorialisation
“I didn’t know her, but…”: parasocial mourning of mediated deaths on Facebook RIP pages
The netlore of the infinite: death (and beyond) in the digital memory ecology
Perhaps many readers will have the same reaction as I do: Social media can be an immense help in the grieving process, as long as the dignity of the person is maintained.
Otherwise, it is just another instance of social media contributing to the disorders of our time, such as vicious public shaming, false climates of opinion, mainstreaming porn, pop culture nihilism, and increased self-centredness, to name a few.
If a loved one has recently passed, who needs that?
Here are survey results from Mashable for 2014 on which social media are used most. It might come in handy if we are wondering how to leverage social media during a bereavement.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.