Dead pixels: How Facebook and Twitter are changing the way we think about death

Update: Facebook has sought to clarify some of the complex decisions it makes around the accounts of deceased users, emphasising a commitment to protect the privacy of messages. A blog for the social network explains that accounts of the dead will automatically become “memorials”, and that a “legacy contact” can be elected – who will have the ability to make some changes to the account. Crucially, Facebook underlines that it will generally not share the private messages of deceased users, even with family members. Below is a feature that goes into greater depth on the subject of death and the internet, originally written in the wake of Facebook’s introduction of “legacy contacts”. 

Dead pixels: How Facebook and Twitter are changing the way we think about death

We will be exposed to death on a very different scale to our parents and grandparents. Not because of plague or war, but because of the internet. You log in to Facebook and watch the lives of people you barely know – their dates, weddings, pregnancies, babies. You scroll through Twitter and are exposed to more aspects of more lives than any other generation in the entirety of human history. So, here’s a hypothetical for you:

You continue to use Facebook until you are 80. Let’s assume the growing mass of acquaintances orbiting your newsfeed do as well. They start to die, and instead of their passing happening off-stage, away from the knowledge of decades-old co-workers, flatmates and secondary-school friends, their deaths are announced on your screen, one by one. 

Let’s go even further into the future. You’re dead, but so is the internet. What happens to all the photos and messages you stored online? What happens to the record of your life?

What should we do with dead profiles?

Ex-NASA scientist and creator of the web comic xkcd, Randall Munroe, has calculated that if Facebook continues to flourish, the number of dead users will outnumber the living in around 2130. If Facebook drops in popularity, that crossover point will happen even earlier, around 2065. Figures like these suggest that, as the digital dead grow in number, sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn won’t only be curators of the living; they’ll be cemetery groundskeepers.facebook dead

An alteration in Facebook’s UK policy indicates the company is taking this new role seriously, and that it wants friends or family to have greater control over their deceased loved one’s profiles. While the social network has previously frozen the accounts of dead users to serve as an online memorial, a “legacy contact” will now be able to respond to friend requests, write pinned posts and update the profile picture on the deceased’s profile.

The feature has been in place in the US since February 2015, and has since been rolled out across Europe. It shows how death is becoming an increasingly explicit aspect of online social networking, and it’s a telling sign of how integrated social networks already are in the rituals of bereavement.

“I think we change the purpose of the media and the media equally changes us, in how we remember the dead and keep our obligations to them”

“I think we change the purpose of the media and the media equally changes us, in how we remember the dead and keep our obligations to them,” said Selina Ellis-Gray, a researcher at Lancaster University currently writing about social media and death. When I spoke to Ellis-Gray about how social media is changing the ways we memorialise the dead, she pointed to a long heritage of technology being used to documenting the lives of the deceased. Photography, for example, went from an experimental technique in the early nineteenth century to a crucial part of how we remember those that have gone.

“What I think differs is the media itself. It brings with it quite a different way of doing things. Some of these recognisable differences come through [the] distributed nature of media, which exists no longer in a box in a wardrobe but a privately owned data centre somewhere. It’s not private in the box/wardrobe sense when people can copy or download it, change and remediate it, even upload and repurpose it.”

Even though Facebook has changed its policy to give greater control over the profiles of dead users to friends and family, the data of the dead isn’t kept in an old shoebox – it’s on the cloud. This raises a number of questions when it comes to ownership, for example, of photographs uploaded to the site.

The “legacy contact” can download an archive of photos from the deceased user’s profile, but cannot edit those archives except for deleting the profile. Unless they’re removed from the site, those photos can be screen-captured, saved, edited and distributed – it’s a far cry from a handful of weathered photographs stored under the bed. Instead of intimate artefacts, these pictures become semi-public data.  

How can thousands of voices express their grief at the same time?

This shift, from private to public, also crops up when you consider the effect of sites such as Twitter on how we think about death. When famous people die, they trend. In a pre-internet age, the death of celebrities would be in the newspapers, and reactions would be kept largely within the confines of private conversations. When an actor or musician passes now, the public outpouring is a swirl of retweeted memorials.Twitter crowd

Does this mass expression provide a genuine sense of closure? It may sound grim, but when expressions of grief and respect can be boiled down to a few swipes of the fingers, is death devalued? On the other hand, do outpourings of grief online place unfair pressure on us to react to the deaths of people we hardly know?

“These debates run much deeper in our culture”

“These debates run much deeper in our culture,” said Ellis-Gray. “There can be great difference in what is seen as the right, genuine and respectful way to mourn, in comparison to what others consider to be transgressive. New media [and] digital technologies are just entering into these conversations.”

Questions about what is “right” for the dead aren’t new. They’ve been around for as long as people have been dying, and in this sense the internet is simply the latest in a long line of factors that have influenced the ethics and etiquettes of how we deal with the end of life. Traditionally, it is religion that dictates these conventions, but in the digital age it is increasingly on private corporations to facilitate and curate our grief. The fluidity of online platforms means the protocols of grieving are not yet fixed in stone. Will these platforms survive long enough for procedures like “legacy contacts” to solidify into rituals?

What will be left of us when the internet dies?

“I have a Zip disk somewhere in my office with my university work on from the early 2000s with no way to access it any more,” Ellis-Gray told me. “GeoCities, Myspace? Bebo? History tells us that things eventually decay and get deleted. Computer systems become obsolete.”

You may worry about a point when the dead outnumber the living on Facebook, but this will become insignificant if Facebook ceases to exist. All memorials run the risk of falling into decay and oblivion, but digital tombs can be knocked down much easier than stone ones. Social networks may have a lot of sway in 2015, but they have the habit of falling out of favour when new generations come along. It’s an important point to consider, because while technologies come and go some things remain graveyard

Our generation will experience death in a very different way to our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents. We will in all likeliness encounter death in a manner unlike any pre-internet generation. But, ultimately, we are still physical creatures, and we still react to death in a physical way.

The internet brings with it a wave of new memorials and procedures, but at the core of all these digital rituals is the most physical thing there is – our bodies, and our connections to other bodies in the world.

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