Sophie Through the facilitation of autobiographical constructions
Sophie LarsenCHID 222 ACDeath in a Digital World: An Examination of Death Practices, Immortality, and the New Funerary Space of Social MediaIntroductionSocial media emerged at the turn of the century as a new mode of communication and interaction between users. Through the facilitation of autobiographical constructions of identity as well as an observed permanence of user data, social media has transformed death. The space enacted by social media enables new death practices and creates a concept of digital immortality that transcends biological death.Space and Social Media Michel de Certeau defines space as “a practiced place”; in other words, space describes a place that has been “transformed and produced by human activities” (de Certeau 117; biofutures 6). Space is about movement and connection between “mobile elements” and these interactions are often structured by the rules of the place (de Certeau 117; biofutures) The social media explosion of the 21st century has given rise to new places and spaces. For instance, Facebook is a place within the internet, whose objects are profiles, users, and data. The space of Facebook is practiced through user interactions, such as posts, comments, and messages. Social media platforms link “mobile elements” (users and their data) with one another in a digital space; the observed permanence of these elements and connections has a profound impact on death practices and perceptions of immortality.Death Practices”With so many available means of documenting our lives, we contribute in many ways to a collection of objects that may eventually be used to memorialize ourselves.” – Heidi Ebert (Lewis and Moreman Ch 2) In the 21st century, many people begin building their social media profiles at a young age. For every birthday, vacation, and new job, we upload photographs and write detailed posts. Even smaller, mundane things are documented, like slow commutes, trips to the movies, or a bad night’s sleep. All of these documents become part of a digital autobiography, our “life narrative” as Heidi Ebert calls it (Lewis and Moreman Ch 2). These autobiographies do not automatically disappear when we die; our profiles and data linger for years, and could (in theory) persist forever, so long as the places that house them (the servers and the internet) do not degrade. The posthumous persistence of our social media data has led to a new death practice in which mourners turn profiles of the dead into “memorial objects”, preserving and interacting with individuals who are not longer present (Lewis and Moreman Ch 2.) Ebert writes that after death, “authorship of the life narrative is passed from the deceased individual to his or community” of social media friends and followers (Lewis and Moreman CH 2). The deceased’s friends and followers post messages of grief, either privately or publicly, and share memories, photos, or other documents that contribute to the “life narrative” (Bollmer 146; Lewis and Moreman; Di Donato). They come together in collective mourning, congregating in a social media space (as opposed to a religious space like a Western church), and continue to build the story of their loved one as part of the mourning process (Lewis and Moreman Ch 1, Ch 3). The account of the deceased becomes a virtual space that connects friends of the deceased to one another in communal grief, and also links the past (a time when the deceased was alive) to the present. Interestingly, Facebook’s (relatively new) memorialization feature tries to structure the communication and authorship that occurs within social media space (Lewis and Moreman Ch 1). When a Facebook user passes away, their social connections now have the option to convert the account into a memorial page managed by a legacy contact, who effectively continues to build their “life narrative” (“Memorialized Accounts”). Legacy contacts cannot alter previously posted content but do have permission to post certain kinds of new content and change the profile/cover photos of the account (“Memorialized Accounts”). This is a literal representation of Ebert’s concept of authorship transfer, in that the deceased transfers permissions of an autobiographical account to a new individual so that their legacy can continue. At the same time, authorship is sometimes transferred only to an individual (the Legacy Contact) and not to a community (Facebook friends), because memorializing a page can prevent the posting of photos and memories to the wall by other users, depending on privacy settings (Bollmer 146; “Memorialized Accounts”). The discomfort that many mourners feel with Facebook’s attempt to structure dead users’ profiles illustrates the new importance of social media space in death practices: if the profile was not an important memorial object, users would not be so upset by its management (Bollmer 146). Digital Immortality”We have become so good at keeping people alive that we’ve succeeded in keeping them alive when, in biological terms, they should have been dead long ago.” – Michel Foucault, pp. 248 With the permanence of social media data, we are not only seeing changes to death practices but also the emergence of digital immortality. For instance, Grant David Bollmer writes that our accumulated data can now “give a nearly full representation of the authentic identity of the human being” (Bollmer 145) Furthermore, profiles are not always marked as belonging to the deceased or to the living (Bollmer 143-145). Consequently, it is fully possible to perceive a dead individual as being living through their social media profile. This is one way that the deceased remain digitally alive. Additionally, in considering the factors that contribute to digital immortality, we can examine the way that the movements and interactions of a space create a sense of vitality. Bollmer notes that “for something to be living, it only needs to be animated” (Bollmer 149). As discussed in the previous section, when we pass on authorship, our friends and connections continue to “build and reshape the space” of our media profiles (Lewis and Moreman Ch. 2). It is important to note that in the process of reshaping the space through contributions of documentation, many mourners write posts that address the deceased through a 2nd person narrative (Lewis and Moreman Ch. 1). For instance, Kimberley Lionel, a mourner mentioned in a HuffPost piece about Facebook and grief, wrote a mother’s day post addressed to her deceased mother that reads, in part: “Happy Mother’s Day Momma. Thanks for being the greatest mother ever … Thanks for always being there and making me smile … I hope I make you proud” (Di Donato). The text is written almost as if Kimberley’s mother is still alive; “I hope I make you proud” implies that there is still an entity resembling her mother that can, even after death, be made proud. Even in death, our profiles remain animated through the content that our communities create, creating a sense of life. However, we do not have to rely solely on our communities to keep our digital spaces animated. Increasingly, technology allows us to continue to communicate from beyond the grave, or at least simulate communication. For instance, an app called LivesOn emerged in 2013 as a tweet-mimicking device for the dead. CNET reported that the app would “analyze your twitter feed, learn your likes and syntax, and then post tweets in a similar vein when you’re gone” (Hornyak). There are more chilling examples, as well. Eugenia Kuyda of Luka, a chat-bot company, created a chat-bot of one of her close friends after his sudden passing (Newton). She used archives of texts he sent her and other individuals over the course of their friendship, and taught a neural network to mimic his syntax and responses. Eventually, the bot could carry on coherent conversations reminiscent of the ones Kuyda had with her friend when he was alive (Newton). In one conversation, Kuyda asks, “How is it there?” Roman responds, “Just laying around”. Kuyda says, “We’ve been missing you here” and Roman responds with “:-(” (Newton). Their interaction feels unscripted, and discomfitingly human. One can easily imagine preparing for death by compiling all of one’s data into a bot before death, so that one could continue to communicate with and support one’s community even after biological death has occurred. Furthermore, as Graham et al. point out, evolving technologies may eventually make it possible to “… explore a new set of questions for the dead (and receive an answer)” Reception of an answer is critical because it implies consciousness. Programs like these are an extension of Bollmer’s idea that data can now represent our “authentic identity”, and suggest that while biological immortality is still a distant goal, digital immortality is almost upon us. Implications We have entered an era where the dead are primarily memorialized and immortalized not in a church but in a digital space. Our self-documentation has become a “memorial object”, and our expressions of grief have become virtualized. If space is practiced place, a key question remains: how have our grief practices shaped digital space? What is digital space if it is so deeply connected to death? I believe that in the 21st century, social media have become a space comparable to a cemetery of open caskets, bodies embalmed and undecaying. In life, the curation of social profiles across numerous social media can be equated to the selection of a cemetery, a plot of land, and a casket. In death, our digital bodies are buried through the documents of grief that eulogize and mourn us. However, because our documents of life and our documents of grief are ostensibly permanent, the burial is not completed. Our caskets remain open for viewing, our bodies open for examination, forever. The metaphor of a cemetery is appropriate because the number of dead Facebook users will eventually outnumber the living, and this will surely extend to other social media as well (Ambrosino). One consequence of the digital open-casket is that death is re-entering the public imagination. Graham et al. note “… a reversal of the post-Victorian sequestration of death and (after-)death …” in recent times (136). Social media is a space that we occupy in both life and death; as a result, viewings of digital bodies and spaces of communal authorship are inescapable. At the same time, while death may be more discussed than it used to be, it seems that it is no longer fully understood. Zadie Smith writes the following: I’ve noticed – and been ashamed of noticing – that when a teenager is murdered … her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred … Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? (Smith)Mourners are using social media to connect with the dead, but also as a way of denying that death has occurred. Digital memorialization has become a way to engage with death, but digital immortality is making it harder for us to comprehend it (Bollmer 145). If the digital body faces death in an open casket, not alive but not fully buried, what do we call this state? While I argued in the section on immortality that digital bodies are, indeed, immortal, it is a shallower state of existence than biological life (at least for now). To describe this phase, I suggest that we borrow language that has evolved through Japan’s discussions of brain death, a death-like state when the heart can continue to beat and the lungs can continue to breathe, but the brain is no longer alive (Thurtle). Bai Koichi, a lawyer involved in these discussions, “recognizes that ‘the body may for a while show features of both life and death’ after ‘death of the brain.’ He suggests that this time could be called the ‘alpha period,’ a time that lies ‘between life and death, but belonging fully to neither.'” (Lock 136) The digital body, too, lies in this ‘alpha period.’ In the new digital cemetery, our digital bodies float perpetually “between life and death, but belong fully to neither.” There is another interesting question that arises from social media cemeteries: will the rise of digital memorial spaces reduce the desire for a physical burial? Put frankly, the developed world is running out of room for bodies (Perkins 34). It has gotten to the point where some countries only allow grave plots to be rented or leased, not owned, while at the same time, many individuals are still uncomfortable with alternate methods like cremation (Perkins 34-35). The emergence of the digital cemetery may allow societies to detach from the physical body; if the digital body becomes the primary memorial object, physical burial may no longer be so important. The final and perhaps most frightening implication of social media and digital immortality is this: in the future, there may come a time when biological death is so insignificant that it sometimes goes unnoticed (or perhaps noticed, but not emphasized). Imagine a person who has spent their whole life building a social media presence. They have trained artificial intelligence to mimic their texts, and have set up an app to continue posting for them once they are gone. When this person passes into the “alpha period”, their friends’ posts directly address them in 2nd person, and there is no marker on their profile to indicate their death. Their digital life continues seamlessly. If you knew this person only distantly in life, would it even be possible for you to notice that they had biologically died? More interestingly, if they had a job where their physical presence was not required and their assignments mostly involved writing, brainstorming, or calculations, their coworkers and perhaps even their boss might not notice right away. Their digital body could potentially continue such a convincing impersonation of biological life through automated digital interaction that their death would be undetected or unimportant. As social technologies progress, digital immortality may make our biological bodies obsolete.