Navigating Digital Death in the Age of Social Media
Here in the digital age, most of us exist both offline and online. Offline, our corporeal bodies have expiration dates. Online, though, we can seemingly live forever through our digital data: social media profiles, photos, videos, blog posts, and consumer information. Indeed, the idea of death itself is now highly influenced by technology, and it is further evolving all the time. This is why there is considerable discussion on the topic of “digital death” and how it can and should be regulated.
What is Digital Death?
The very idea of digital death is a phenomenon of very recent culture. It refers to the various ways we represent death in the digital space — the internet. All the emotional scenarios tied to grief are found online now, too, including mourning rituals and sharing condolences.
These technological developments have given rise to new questions, too. Should digital death be regulated? If so, how? How do we use new technology ethically? Unfortunately, none of these questions have easy answers.
Roadrunner: A Case Study
To provide an example of very real scenarios giving rise to the above questions, let’s look at the 2021 documentary film Roadrunner. Though it was filmed entirely after celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s 2018 death by suicide, director Morgan Neville used artificial intelligence (AI) technology to make it appear as though Bourdain was delivering monologues throughout the film.
While the technology Neville employed is rather amazing, was it ethical? The audience doesn’t know that the monologues aren’t actually Bourdain speaking. Should Neville have been permitted to use the voice of a deceased person in synthesized speech? Though there are many opinions, but no clear answers.
Making the Impossible Possible
It’s not just the film industry utilizing new technology — and creating new ethical dilemmas. The Replika app uses a bot to analyze a deceased loved one’s correspondence with a user — then creates responses and messages that are similar to their real messages. In effect, a user of the app can chat with their deceased loved ones.
A company called HereAfter offers a similar technology to living customers who wish to create a chatbot that can communicate with future generations. For example, if you provide information about how you met your spouse, your great-great grandchildren can ask the chatbot about this event in your life, and it will answer them — in your own voice.
Some technology goes beyond conversations with deceased loved ones. In October 2020, Kim Kardashian shared that Kanye West had gifted her a hologram of her deceased father. Not only did it talk like him, but it also looked like him, too. Kardashian described it as “so lifelike” and a very emotional experience. This type of advanced technology can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars.
Digital Death on Social Media
Across the world’s social networks, there are billions of users with registered accounts. So, what happens to a person’s account when they die? Meta, formerly Facebook, has addressed this in their own ways. They were forced to take action because approximately 800 Facebook users die every day. Now, the company allows the heirs of deceased users to turn their loved one’s profiles into “memorial pages” that will live on forever. An heir can even be appointed during a user’s lifetime. When the user dies, the heir must submit a special request to Facebook support. Once approved, the heir cannot make changes to a user’s past records, remove friends, or read the personal correspondence. However, they can make determinations about new friend requests and posts tagging the deceased.
While it may be comforting that a loved one’s social media account can live on, is it ideal for one heir to have access and responsibility for the account? This is also a question with many opinions but no clear answers.
Preserving Memories Safely, Affordably, and Ethically
Perhaps the best option today for preserving a loved one’s memory is the use of online memorial websites. Many, like those available through ForeverMissed.com, provide a user-friendly interface. They also allow many users to participate in adding photos, videos, written memories, and personal memorial messages. No one maintains a monopoly over the information on the memorial page, it offers an opportunity for collective grief and mourning, and it becomes a lasting digital record of many facets of a person’s life.
Further, online memorial websites are ethical and cost-effective ways to honor and remember loved ones, and they make processing grief easier. One reason they are growing in popularity is that they don’t carry the same ethical dilemmas as heirs managing social media accounts or technologies that use the voices and likenesses of deceased individuals.
Why Digital Death Matters
As human beings, we have a strong emotional connection to our loved ones even after they pass. It’s in our nature to look for ways to feel close to them again, such as by viewing their life through the lens of digital photos and videos. Online tools like personal memorial websites allow us to process our grief and even come to terms with the loss.
Of course, as technology continues to evolve, more pressing ethical questions will, too. In many ways, the line between our offline and online selves has become blurred. We don’t simply disappear at the moment of death, but in what context should we continue to live on in the digital space? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments box below. Given the evolving technologies at play, it behooves all of us to consider our online selves and what we hope will remain of us once our physical bodies pass on.