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Does death change our online networks?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Photo by ashley rose. Click on image for license and information.

A good friend of mine passed away in June. John had cancer. Before you offer condolences, you should know he did not want to be mourned. It’s been a hard request to follow, but he felt he had lived a full life. As the cancer progressed, we fell into a pattern of exchanging semi-regular emails. We generally avoided talking about his illness—until the very end —but we talked about everything else: from baseball to snowstorms to my garden and his art, we talked as if nothing would change. I’d mention a beach trip and John would tell me about surfing there when he was younger. I’d talk about some press event that I would be attending and he’d tell me about the time he went to a party hosted by J.P. Morgan’s descendants at that location. In this way, John gave me a richer view of my world; it became layered with his stories.

One of our favorite things to do was immediately email the other if we happened to catch a B-list horror movie on television, or if we happened across a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood marathon. The other night, I came across a Rocky marathon and without thinking about it reached for my laptop to send him an email (with the appropriate subject line of “AAAADRIAAAAN!”) and then I realized he wasn’t there to receive it. I put my laptop down with a small sense of disquiet—and found something else to watch.

It’s hard not to have a digital presence today. While John wasn’t an active social media participant, he did have at least two email addresses, a LinkedIn account, and a website where he shared his art. Now that he’s gone, these properties still exist, albeit unattended. I’m sure his work email has been closed or forwarded, but I have no idea if anyone is monitoring his other email address(es), or has the intention of contacting LinkedIn, or has access to his website. I’m sure at some point the registration will expire and his site will come down, but until then, John has a place online.

In the offline world, we approach death with rituals designed to ultimately help us let go. Many cultures have a gathering for the deceased; these events serve both the corpse and remaining members of the community. For example, different traditions hold that the deceased may be confused and require company until the body is buried or cremated. These events also allow members of the deceased’s network to comfort each other. But wakes and other funeral rites also begin a process of distancing. The deceased was a fully integrated member of various networks, and enmeshed with the social and emotional lives of those who are left behind. Removing this person from the network takes time, but it has to to happen. The loss causes an imbalance in the relationships that are left and the network works to resolve feelings of grief. It requires degrees of forgetting and replacing routines that have been daily occurrences in some instances. It might mean that a designated individual or small group has to go through the remaining effects and face the life the person left behind. That person will determine what to keep, what to throw away, and what to donate. That individual is responsible to managing what remains of the deceased’s presence by closing accounts where applicable and establishing new processes to fill the recent void.

But what about digital properties like email and social network accounts?

If you’re the one designated to manage and close online properties, Twitter will deactivate an account if provided with a death certificate, your ID, and a signed statement. Pinterest and LinkedIn have similar requirements, and Instagram asks that you contact them so they can advise of next steps. These processes represent instances of reframing connections and reestablishing the social network.

However, Facebook will either deactivate the account or have it converted to a memorial page. The latter is an interesting case because it can disrupt the mourning process. In offline traditions, private grief can continue long after the “prescribed” mourning period, but there comes a point where the deceased’s public memory is largely reduced to a death anniversary. Online memorials extend this period by offering a place where mourners can collectively gather and share memories that can be accessed by the community at any time. They reinforce the connections that members of the deceased’s network have with one another, but they also reinforce the place of the deceased within the network. The deceased is never fully physically removed from the group because members can continue to interact with him by leaving a message or a comment or sharing some media. As other members interact with these digital segments, the community grows and thrives around the deceased. And while the interaction is never one-to-one with the deceased, it does raise the question of whether the network ever is allowed to heal. Our rituals are designed for closure, and as callous as it may sound, we employ processes that allow us to replace that person and the role they held in the overall social structure (which is not the same as saying we’re trying to replace the personal significance they may have held in our lives). How important is this type of resolution to the social fabric?

These community spaces also extend the management of the memory of the deceased to a larger group. Keeping a deceased member integrated requires a collective effort in remembering and is a delicate exercise. But should grief be managed in this way? For example, should the network have a say if family members want the memorial removed? Or vice versa? The question of who has rights to the digital assets of an individual is a question that’s being actively addressed. Only six states currently have laws on the books that provide access to a personal representative of the deceased. Others are in the process of proposing or reviewing laws. Presently, digital assets have tended to be kept by the company that provides the service in question, but legislation could change this and put ownership in the hands of family members, bringing digital closure in line with more traditional offline methods for managing assets.

Google’s Inactive Account Manager asks the user to think ahead to a time when they may not be using their account. Users set a time-out period indicating a trigger point if the account is inactive for a certain amount of time. Google will send an alert and if the user does not respond, it will notify pre-selected contacts and share data with them. Finally, if requested, Google will delete the account. Now arguably, having someone take control of our digital properties is no different than having someone clear out our closet. There is a chance that there might be a shoebox of embarrassing letters we might not have shared otherwise in that closet, just as there might be correspondence or data that we might not have wanted to share. The difference is that it’s so easy to share that information with a wider audience online. This process acknowledges this potential for dispersal.

Our digital spaces contain real pieces of ourselves—personal photos and videos, music and movies we’ve purchased, career information, contact information and personal communications, as well as information about hobbies and personal projects. McAfee valued this aspect of our lives at around $35,000. Questions about privacy and permissions relating to the digital accounts of the deceased are becoming more salient, and represent an area where we are likely to see change and legislation unfold rapidly in the coming years.

The grieving process allows mourners to transform their relationship to the deceased. As grief and mourning happen online, does this hamper our ability to say goodbye? If the network resists change by not reassessing the person lost, what is the long term impact on our relationships with each other?


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References:

Aggarwal, R. (2001). At the Margins of Death: Ritual Space and the Politics of Location in an Indo-Himalayan Border Village American Ethnologist, 28 (3), 549-573 DOI: 10.1525/ae.2001.28.3.549

Conklin, B. (2001). Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin.

Dernbach, Katherine Boris. (2005). Spirits of the Hereafter: Death, Funerary Possession, and the Afterlife in Chuuk, Micronesia. Ethnology, 44 (2), 99-123

Klima, Alan. (2002). The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton: University Press.


Read more:
Proposed law would clarify who gets access to a deceased person’s digital accounts
What happens to your digital life after death?
FIDUCIARY ACCESS TO DIGITAL ASSETS ACT

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Sablwolf4234 2:44 pm 08/6/2014

    I think we have a great deal to learn about grief as a society, but I don’t expect it to happen. Most people and institutions are geared to telling you to “buck up,” bury them, cry a few tears, and for all practical purposes expunge them from your memory. Sometimes you’re expected to hardly even miss a step! That is especially true if the deceased was a pet. People don’t know how to process death, it embarrasses them, so their answer is not to process it at all. It’s almost a non-event, especially in the workplace. Oh, you can remember the deceased on the anniversary of their death or birthday a time or two, but anything beyond that is considered morbid. To me, that is the height of callousness. No, I don’t believe we should dwell on the memory of the deceased, but at the same time (as you experienced yourself when you wanted to share with your friend) they aren’t completely gone from our lives. Expecting people to just “move on” is unreasonable and unhealthy.
    I lost a dear friend to cancer a couple of years ago, and I still think of her often. I never took her phone number out of my contact list, because I like remembering her when I run across it, and I wrote on her Facebook page this year on her birthday. Remembering those we love, whether they happened to be a spouse, best friend, or a beloved pet is important. It shouldn’t end with their death. I think Facebook, since it’s focus is expressing feelings, has the right idea on this one, though other media should just terminate accounts after a period of inactivity.

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