There was a time when only two things in life were certain; death and taxes. Now there’s a third certainty; that the imprint we leave online will last long after we are gone. By 2012, just eight years after Facebook launched, 30 million profile owners had died. According to some estimates, 8,000 Facebook users die every day, leaving behind profiles, photos, likes, and memories.
“We might think of our public social media record as some type of digital soul,” says Brandon Ambrosino. “Were I to die tomorrow, my digital soul would continue to exist.”
“Our ritual reflects our society,” says Umy Boonmarlart, Principal of Design at Frog. “In each culture, we treat our losses in a different way.” And while historically, the way we view death and bereavement has been informed primarily by religion, now people are considering their digital afterlife.
“Our digital presence becomes so strong that it’s a part of us,” says Boonmarlart, which is perhaps why funeral directors are seeing more requests that people to be buried or cremated with their smartphone and battery. Not a bad idea if you want to make sure your Internet search history dies with you. People care about how they are seen in life, and death is no different.
The rise of social mourning
Boonmarlart has been working with grief counsellors to find out how people process loss, and to explore the possibility of designing digital tools to help them through it. The first thing he found, unsurprisingly, was that there is no blanket solution to grief. Research has actually shown, he says, that everyone’s tears are different; when viewed through a microscope they crystallise in distinct ways, like snowflakes: “It’s quite beautiful to see the reflection of our pain is as unique as our pain itself,” he says.
Outside of support groups and grief counselling, a great many people suffering a bereavement stated that they found social media to be a great comfort; not just in terms of being able to access old photos or videos, but in the ability it offers to see the other lives touched by the person who has died. This is no more evident than in the aftermath of a famous figure’s passing; just look at the outpouring of love online for David Bowie earlier this year.
More and more families are choosing to keep the social profiles of their departed active, in the form of memorialised pages. As generations pass, these memorials have the potential to take on historical value, even functioning as family trees.
“As I’ve told my mother, my grandchildren may be able to learn about her by studying her Facebook profile,” says Ambrosino. “Assuming the social network doesn’t fold, they won’t just learn about the kinds of major life events that would make it into my mom’s authorised biography. They’ll learn, rather, the tiny, insignificant details of her day to day life… And of course, they’ll have plenty of pictures to go with it. By studying this information, my grandchildren will come to know about their great grandmother.”
From ‘RIP’ to ‘BRB’
A commonly voiced regret among grievers is not having taken more video or audio recordings. Even more commonly cited is the act of calling someone’s answerphone, to hear his or her outgoing voicemail message. The more vivid the memory, the more we treasure it.
But what if you could continue to interact with a virtual version of your loved one? This scenario has already played out, with invariably creepy results, in literature, film and TV. There is a reason that the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” resonated with so many viewers; if we were given the opportunity to speak to someone we lost, for the price of a Spotify subscription, there’d soon be a long line of people willing to sign up.
That idea is no longer merely the stuff of science fiction. EterniMe is a very real start-up ,currently looking for beta testers who are willing to create a “digital avatar” based on their online selves. This avatar will be made available to interact with your friends and family after you are gone. Over 31,000 people have already signed up, and EterniMe believe that preserving the memories and ideas of people in such a way will prove to be “an invaluable treasure for humanity.” But when it comes to the already-difficult journey of moving on, will creating this kind of electronic ghost be a help or a hindrance?
There are other, less drastic means of using technology to aid in bereavement. Case in point; Bios Urn, a biodegradable urn containing the ashes of a person along with a seed. Once buried, the seed will grow into a plant or a tree, essentially creating life out of death, and encouraging mourners to see death as “a transformation and a return to life through nature.” There are other services which offer to turn your loved one’s ashes into a diamond, or into a firework; yet more rituals shaped by technology.
“You can’t outsmart grief,” says Boonmarlart. “You have to work with it.” He’s right; grief is a lifelong companion. The pain of losing someone is universal and unchanging, and it is unlikely that there will ever be a technological solution to this problem. There arguably shouldn’t be. The power of technology to preserve and honour someone’s memory, however, could make all the difference.