What Should We Do with the Online Undead?

The Internet has given us a kind of digital afterlife, where our online activities can be preserved and memorialized like fossils in a rock. We talked to an expert about how your friends, family, and complete strangers will use the Internet to remember you long after you're gone.

One person who's given this subject considerable thought is Sarah Cashmore, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. I contacted her to learn more about this subject — one that's affected her quite personally.

io9: Tell us how you came to be interested in digital afterlives.

Sarah Cashmore: I sort of fell into this issue. My personal experience is that back in 2009, a close Twitter friend of mine, Mac Tonnies, passed away very suddenly. Mac was a science fiction writer and prolific blogger who left behind a lot of unique digital content and many friends who loved him. His blog, Posthuman Blues, was a collection of everything that interested him; it was a wonderfully weird curated collection of esoterica he scoured the internet for. After he passed away, there was a growing concern among his friends what would become of his online legacy; for many of us who hadn't met him in person, his online presence was the only way we knew him, so it was very important to us to preserve it. His legacy consisted not only of his online materials, but also the friendships he had developed.

What Should We Do with the Online Undead?

One friend, Mark, took it upon himself to back up Mac's websites. This required him to collaborate with Mac's parents, who were taking care of Mac's affairs, because it took some figuring out where his credit card charges were going, and so on. But Mark bought some hosting space and archived everything so we wouldn't lose it. Everyone appreciated Mark's incurring that cost, because no one really knew what was going to happen to the site. I still don't think the policies around blogs is very clear. Anything could happen.

What Should We Do with the Online Undead?

Above: Mac Tonnies's blog, Posthuman Blues, is still online five years after his untimely death. His final post, titled "Triptych 15," represents his final contribution to the Web. The comments section, now 450 comments deep, was where his readers first found out about his death and where they were able to leave their condolensces. The screen cap above shows the first several comments in the days following his mysterious disappearance (Mac died suddenly in his sleep).

I, on the other hand, wanted to maintain the community of his friends. After news of his passing spread, there was a period of about a week where Mac's online Twitter friends found each other through hashtagging his name, and we just introduced ourselves to each other, shared condolences and shared memories. I met dozens of people, each as grief-stricken as I was, many of whom had never met Mac in person but were very devoted to him and devastated by the loss of this friend. I started Macbots as an outlet for these friends I'd met to continue sharing, and hopefully heal through expressing themselves, creatively or otherwise, to a community of Mac's friends who understood how it felt to lose this unique friend.

Macbots began as a tribute site that I thought might be geared toward his more artistic friends. I just thought that a site for posting fan art might be a fun way for his friends to commemorate such a special guy. But I never really pressed the idea; it was just a suggestion. I didn't want to take ownership of the blog; I just wanted to set up a collaborative space for Mac's friends. I added anyone who contacted me as Mac's friend as an author so they could add to the site as they pleased. And whereas some people did create artistic pieces, there are also a lot of posts that are just messages from us to Mac, and us to each other. A really special day was when Mac's mom Dana send me sci-fi pictures and short stories Mac had created as a child to post on the site. And it's amazing, but all this time later, we still have visitors to the site every day.

What are some of the various digital artifacts that people leave behind?

The obvious ones are the places in the cloud where people deliberately create content, like in social media sites and productivity spaces like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google Docs, and so on. But there are less obvious sites, including message boards/forums, YouTube, SoundCloud/MixCloud, online gaming high scores, bank statements — and even dating profiles. But our digital artifacts are also built up anywhere a computer backs up our preferences or histories. Examples would be our computer settings, Amazon suggestions or Netflix channels.

Are most social networking sites sensitive to this issue, and what typically happens when a user passes away?

Any social media site that has any form of automation in their services has to be responsible and responsive to this issue. For example, Facebook learned they had to, as people complained about getting "recommendations" from friends and family members who'd passed away. When this issue first came out, they clarified or revised their policy so that someone could send in a death certificate so the activity on their account would cease. But every site has a different policy when dealing with this.

What Should We Do with the Online Undead?

Above: An example of a Facebook Memorial page.

Tell us about digital shrines and memorials. How has this space changed recently?

Digital shrines or memorials seem to be gaining in popularity. Just last week, for example, a friend of mine at school passed away. The e-mail memorial notice that was passed around the department is actually a link to a memorial site set up by the funeral directors. It's set up very similarly to a social media site, where my friend's name and picture is included on the main page, and there are tabs so you can switch between practical information such as where the visitation is going to be held, and social areas so family and friends can post stories or sign the guestbook, upload pictures and videos, and there's even a place where you can set up a digitized family tree. I'd never seen anything like this before, so my first reaction was how beautifully this was put together.

But then it struck me how the use of social media has changed, especially when I considered the attention Macbots received at the beginning (from the New York Times, Twittamentary, Disinformation and Technoccult). Online memorials are more commonplace now, and it's way more thought out. They're advertised with a promise to stand the test of time, and be available for future generations to "connect" with those who came before them. Even just this promise of permanency is way ahead of anything we were working with when Mac died. Online memorials now offer multilingual features, and are very customizable. So I think our culture is starting to do more than just experiment with digital afterlives, but are beginning to incorporate it into our current practices. The next question is if the digital sites where our current population spends all their waking life will follow suit.

For the record, online memorials aren't without controversy either, and rightly so. Another colleague of mine at University of Toronto recently completed a study where she investigated whether online grieving has implications for the bereaved or the memory of the loved one. They found that certain features of Facebook's platform can actually create an environment of competition among mourners. This leads to the concern that users could inadvertently negatively affect the memory of their loved one, which I think is very important.

There are also some philosophical and metaphysical considerations to be had. What does it mean to have our digital echoes reverberate throughout the Web after we're dead? And can that be seen as a kind of immortality?

I think the issue of using social media to bereave a friend points to a problem that goes for any cultural institution: as soon as you institutionalize a way of doing something, you open a possibility for responses to become artificial very quickly. For this reason, I don't think there should be one way of bereaving a friend online. I think the lesson to be learned here is that the internet needs to be open, and that we need to stay free to create our own spaces and new ways of communicating, on our own terms. Without that, I fear we may become inauthentic.

What Should We Do with the Online Undead?

(Detelina Petkova/Shutterstock)

Another philosophical question this raises is what is the nature of a person's life? If you see a person's cultural contributions as a literal extension of him- or herself, as advocates of meme theory do, a website such as Posthuman Blues, or the memories I share with the Macbot community, is as real a part of my friend Mac as his physical body. And if you believe our physical environment actively supports our memories, as proponents of the extended mind philosophy do, then people who are looking to these digital archives and communities may be doing more than just reminiscing — they may be engaging in a kind of socializing we've never taken seriously before.

We have this idea that life ends when the heartbeat stops. I think this view may have some influence from traditional religious teachings that dying marks the end of the physical life and the beginning of a new, spiritual one. So much of grieving has to do with somehow resolving ourselves to believe our loved one is gone and that we've lost someone forever. But perhaps it's not that cut and dry. Maybe if we reclaim the community our loved one built, and not let that die, we will gain comfort. If so, I think we can learn that there is more to life than life itself.

We don't need to consider death in the traditional sense anymore. After all, many of us already hold the sentiment that we keep each other alive in our hearts. David Eagleman expresses this beautifully in his collection of short stories, SUM: "There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time." So on the one hand, we get to carry our loved ones with us much longer than perhaps we thought. But on the other hand, Eagleman also says, "Since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be." So it's a double-edged sword. But it's our double-edged sword; it's just the nature of our impermanence. The situation isn't much different as when we're alive; even in living we are what people think we are.

In many ways, we're dealing with the same issue we had before computers — Can/should a person be remembered only by what they've left behind? Before the internet, people were mostly remembered by their letters, pictures, and other artifacts. Nowadays, although people are generating so much more content, I don't think the answer has changed, but perhaps we're aware of it more because we have new kinds of content to consider.

Looking to the future, what changes, policies, or practices would you like to see in regards to our digital shrines and remaining digital artifacts?

Some people think that there should be a limit to how long digital media sites host their material, but I think we should hold onto that as long as we can. We want to see people as we remember them, in their own creation, not just in the space of an online memorial. People argue that they ought to have a right to be forgotten — and if you believe that, that's fine — but as I see it, that position often stems from a desire to forget the ugly parts of online life.

In my opinion our digital lives are too precious to be lost. Current friends and future historians will treasure it. Maybe as a result of our day-to-day lives not being forgotten, people will learn not to idealize each other: to accept each other's mistakes and slip-ups instead of expecting each other to be perfect, and learn to be a little more realistic about each other. At least I hope so.

Image: pzAxe/Shutterstock.

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