Dying Online


There is something admirable in the capacity of Facebook to celebrate life in all its aspects; love, success, failure and relationships. Living in all its glory is so inherent to the ways we portray ourselves online, that the unique consequences of our mortality are rarely discussed when it comes to social media presence.
The enchantment of life and its flourishing generation of data have been clearly calculated in the platform’s algorithm; the more we perform life on a virtual scale, the more Facebook’s vitality will be an effective and profitable one.

What was probably not taken into account in our virtual presence, was the ephemerality of our material lives.

It is hard to believe that Facebook’s think tank did not take into consideration that their users will eventually pass from this life to the next - omitting such a minor detail of the human cycle - ultimately finding themselves with millions of active dead folks’ profiles. And yet, it seems that Facebook technically intervened in solving this issue just around mid 2015, giving enough time for the spreading of the ‘digital afterlife’ businesses, companies whose role is to manage user’s virtual presence post mortem; a morbid mishap to allow companies to establish their business necessity and vitality.
Now Facebook has finally imposed its own policy by setting an official system that allows users to have the possibility to choose their posthumous digital remains and its circulation within the web everspace - much like the old ‘organ donor/non-organ donor’ tick box - only this time round, ones donations will support the expansion of infinite data, rather than a real human’s life.
A last will of our digital presence.

The possibilities are dual, you can either decide to have your account removed and with that all data eliminated, or instead ‘memorialised’, captured frozen in metaspace and ever expanding alongside it. It is no surprise that this Facebook add-on hasn’t been largely advertised. No special wall messages appeared on our notifications telling us that it would take merely five minute to do our web-testament. Quite understandably so, as at the end of the day, Facebook is about celebrating “virtual” life, where there is no place for “real” death.

But before this recent option was introduced, there has been more than a decade of users dying, leaving their accounts active and present within the platform. We can consider this aggregate of defunct peoples' accounts as a neglected graveyard; a cyber-archive of the dead. The truth is that these digital presences are not as immobile as we expect death to be. They continue living after us, fuelling the data-driven system and inhabiting the network independently from our agencies.

We are all aware that the material body belongs to the tangible, finite realm. What we are still not sure of, is the legacy of the digital body. Within 'A Cyborg Manifesto' (1985), Professor Donna Haraway defines that in the post-human era, technological apparatus have challenged men’s corporeal mass and the boundary between the physical and the non-physical body have been increasingly blurred. If we consider social media as an extension of our self and that this self will outlive our real lives, decades after we are dead, then the possibility for online immortality is suddenly created.

The idea of an enduring digital body – whose life goes beyond the physical death - is without a doubt, an irresistible option. Further, the unexpected outcome of this encounter between the social media milieu and death has produced the unachievable goal; Facebook has won the ultimate communication challenge: connecting us with the afterlife.

Facebook’s users increasingly found themselves with dead friends, relatives and acquaintances still available on their contact list, and out of this encounter, a new type of cybernetic interaction originates.
I have found myself repeatedly going through the Facebook page of a few deceased persons I have within my contacts and I couldn’t stop scrolling down, observing the timeline activity on their walls. Friends and family members have been posting and sharing images, music and words on the defunct walls, mainly as gestures of remembrance, but above all, as kind of ‘post digital seance’ communication method.

As a person who has adopted rather sceptic perceptions towards the public expressions of feelings on social media, I found this notion hard to connect with. But there must be an empowering and surely elevating power in this world-wide-web-after-life-communication, if people keep relying on it. It is almost as though Facebook has become a new religion-space of mourning within increasingly secularised societies. As academic Alexandra Sherlock points out, ironically new technologies are reassuring people after the disenchantment with religious beliefs, establishing new dynamics in the understanding of death.

Thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise that digital technology has managed to reconcile itself with the spiritual/immaterial realm: at the end of the day, the infinite web and the unknown afterlife share several similarities.

But there is something disturbing and confusing in coming across your defunct friend’s Facebook page, as his/her digital presence hasn’t changed much: posts, photos and comments are visible and the website still allows users to interact with the static posts of the past. Whilst the tangible relationship has been broken when this person died, the virtual distance that has always been separating us hasn’t changed.
I couldn’t see and touch them when they were alive, I can’t see and touch them now that they’re dead.

This cybernetic conversation with the defunct doesn’t mean people do not acknowledge the other person’s death; instead, it can be seen as a 21st century adaptation of a 'memento' (a prayer for the dead). But we cannot ignore that this postmortem online communication undoubtedly reveals the on-going shift in which we mourn and process death, introducing us to a new set of gestures and rituals that will accompany contemporary mourners through the hardest of times.

Death, like all other aspects of our lives, has now too been swallowed into the deep web, shaped to fit the fast-changing social scenario, and eventually allowing more afterlife experiences to flourish.
Maybe digital technology is what was needed to free death from its eternal taboo, to liberate it from its frightful aura and elevate it to the next web hit. Death as the ultimate shareable moment.

Words by Sofia Gallarate

James Burgess
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