Few people “plan for the impact of their own deaths on social media,” says Katie Gach, digital ethnographer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who studies how people handle and don’t handle postmortem data social media. For some of his subjects, âheirloomsâ are reserved for celebrities, so âregularsâ like them don’t need to consider a farewell note. If people think about their social media legacy, she says, “they don’t know who should make these decisions until after they die,” such as telling their spouse their Facebook password to delete their account. Beyond that, most see social media as the wrong medium for the message, “as a communication tool in the moment, not as a meaningful record.”
Beyond that, decades after the internet became part of our daily lives, most of us still don’t know how to grieve online or are too uncomfortable. In a 2017 study, Gach and his fellow digital death researchers, Casey Fiesler and Jed Brubaker, found that the âbereavement policeâ was common online, where users import the social norms of bereavement into social media. This leads to bitter disagreements over what is appropriate, and often to the shame of individuals for not expressing enough grief, seeking attention through public grief, or exploiting death for personal gain.
For all of these reasons, along with the good old fear of death that precludes planning for our purposes, the vast majority of death announcements online today look like or are literal copy-and-paste versions of the local newspaper’s obituary by heart. Because this formula – date of death, age, who survives the deceased, where to send money instead of flowers – is only data, no life, these messages often get lost in our endless news feeds. . Person A has changed jobs, Person B is divorced, Person C is deceased, Pete Davidson got a Salt Bae tattoo on his thigh.
Why should we care about how our dead look on Twitter when we’re dead? While Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse announcement earlier this fall prompted mostly taunts, stares and trepidation, it should remind us how close society is to a world where the digital space is a part. of our bodily (and not just experiential) being, where institutions like birth, love, and death have the same gravity as in the physical world. To prepare for this Ready, player one existence, we should start thinking now about how to conserve this world with the tools to meaningfully die.
Fortunately, there are already communities that help create the art and ethics of dying gracefully in cyberspace. Megan Devine, a psychotherapist, created Refuge in Grief, an online community that focuses on reframing grief as an illness or problem to be resolved into a community built around compassion and understanding. Another community, the Order of the Good Death, even uses the slogan “Welcome to the future of death” as a portal to critical questions about death, such as how to make it more environmentally friendly and fair. The “positive death” movement, which aims to lift the taboo around speaking openly about our own dead, has also had room to thrive online, where the disembodied forum has made it easier for people to overcome the taboo. Even the social media platforms themselves have started to wake up. After years of complaints, Facebook, which has a lot of control over how the grieving unfolds, began in 2019 to allow a legacy contact to have more control over the deceased’s activities.