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Digital Death: Talking with the Dead on Social Media

It was my friend Steve’s birthday this week. It was the first thing I noticed the other morning as I logged into Facebook and scanned my feed.

Dealing with the impact of loss online is never clear
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Now the thing is that my pokey, tattooed digital pal, who I met back in the early days of MySpace, has been dead since December 2009.

Out of curiosity I took a look at his page to see what was going on.

Facebook’s auto birthday reminders, one of the platform’s oldest features, appeared not to be the only one’s confused about Steve’s corporeal state. Scrolling down the screen there appeared about 2 years worth of random greetings & birthday posts.

There were several messages mixed in between the birthday greetings that seemed to acknowledge and comment on his passing but for the most part the page appeared much like any other.

Each year on my own dead mother’s birthday, my sister awkwardly tags me in photos of her that I do not actually appear in.

Last year another friend of mine overdosed after several earnest attempts at sobriety and there had been activity on his page after his death. Seems some of his family choose to assume control over his individual account as apart of their grieving process.

Within a day or so of his death his account became a flurry of activity of friend additions and interactions with his profile.

From time to time I still see my dead friend add new people to his network and the occasional page “Like”. All three ways I’ve seen people in my immediate network deal with death on social media have been creepy but understandable.

Where one profile immediately became a digital Weekend At Bernie’s Zombie animated by his deceased family member’s keystrokes the other sat silently for two years collecting posts from people thinking them alive.

I’m not sure which bothered me more the well meaning attentive tact one family took or the neglect the second seemed to suffer.

I get it people deal with death differently but as social media evolves and offers people weird new ways to express it I think a larger dialog needs to occur about what happens to your digital presence when you are gone both as it affects us as individuals and as a society as a whole.

The taboo surrounding talking about one’s own death is huge and bringing up what your wishes are for when you are worm food.

Everyone has their own unique relationship with their online accounts and figuring out what you want to have happen with them is a highly personal matter. If you do not have a clear set of wishes it will be left to chance who gets access to your accounts and what is to be done with them.

Discussing the matter directly as a part of your living will is ideal but it does not need to be so formal. Bring up the subject the next time a big celebrity bites the bullet or while watching a black comedy or your favorite bad zombie film.

Having had this conversation with several folks, I’ve noticed the subject is often met with uneasy laughter - rants about reincarnation, nihilism, emptiness, or beatific descriptions of angelic cosmology - but is a subject everyone seems to want to talk about once you break the ice.

Facebook & MySpace both offer options for individual profiles to be converted into Memorial pages, if they are provided with information about a death.

Twitter's policy is unclear. Internet rumors abound about the deletion of Timelines & accounts of people once they are dead.

Facebook also allows immediate family members the option of closing down a profile and removing it from their system completely.

Yesterday after talking to a bunch of people who got the same annoying message from Facebook, I took the initiative and submitted a report about Steve’s profile.

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