Death, social media and you

Chances are if you’re reading this, you a) have some sort of social media presence and b) are a mortal human. So – unless you’re an Internet user of the Ron Swanson variety or have a few horcruxes up your sleeve (good luck with that) – your web presence is going to live a whole lot longer than you. Our cells are programmed to die; our social media accounts, not so much.

A Growing Digital Graveyard

Thanks to Facebook’s grip on almost twenty percent of the world population, Facebook pages are getting left for the afterlife in daily hordes. More than 580,000 of Facebook’s 1.32 billion users will die within the next year, an average of 1,589 users per day. If Facebook continues to grow, the amount of deceased users will exceed the living by 2130. If growth stops, the ratio will be achieved by 2065. Soon enough, users will be able to access what will essentially be a digital graveyard full of a lot more interesting information about our ancestors than what we can now find on Genealogy.com. Virtual journals of departed loved ones’ lives will always be a few clicks away, laid bare for unlimited rumination.

“Whether you like it or not…people are interacting with your second self when you’re not there,” said cyborg anthropologist (coolest job title ever) Amber Case in her much-watched TED Talk, “We Are All Cyborgs Now.” And she’s right – every time someone engages with one of your tweets, posts or Instagram photos, they’re interacting with an extension of yourself. So what are the psychological repercussions of this when the person you’re interacting with – or have the potential to interact with – is dead?

A Special Brand of Voyeurism

Last week just one day after the MH17 crash, FB Newswire shared this photo:

A sampling of the comments: “I’m sure his family is absolutely ecstatic that you’ve shared this with the 78-odd thousand people who ‘like’ this page, you absolutely disgusting cretins”; “There is now[sic] privacy anymore”; and “Do you not think his family would want some privacy and not have you sharing his profile page link with the world!” Needless to say, this blatant promotion of voyeurism was met with disgust. It's easy to nod along to comments like these…often just before clicking that pesky little link.

A Double-Sided Coin

You don’t have to work in the media to know that people are fascinated by tragedy, which is why most of us have clicked on a few Facebook pages of deceased people we barely knew.  For loved ones of the departed, the large outpouring of support that’s often very much intertwined with this special brand of voyeurism is two-fold: on one hand, it can be hugely comforting to see how many lives the deceased person touched, witness their memory be so vastly celebrated, and feel a sense of community during the grieving process. On the other hand, the impassioned messages of near-strangers might seem insincere, and even have a self-serving “I’m-sadder-than-you” air about them. And then there are the practicalities of Facebook to consider: a notification that it’s their birthday or that they’ve been tagged in a pre-death photo can quickly become emotionally wrought. And what about brands using their account history to get you to like their pages? A banal “X likes Starbucks” on the side of your screen takes on a new color. Is our aversion to these occurrences natural or a symptom of the western compulsion to deal with death by separating ourselves from it? That might be a question for another day.

Personalizing Your Digital Gravestone

However you feel about the matter, one thing is certain: it’s better to have a plan than not.

After you kick the bucket, do you want your accounts to live on? Get shut down? Best let a loved one know, because the process can be a bit rigorous. You can also have someone close to you request to get your Facebook page memorialized, which maintains your privacy settings and allows friends to post and tag you, but keeps your name from showing up in public spaces like birthday reminders and “People You May Know.” As for your Google accounts, you now have the option to set up an Inactive Account Manager, which lets you choose an expiration date for all your account data or entrust some or all of it to a loved one in the event of your death.

For those of you who want to leave a little something behind in the socialsphere, if i die and Dead Socialallow you to schedule messages – proclamations of love, happy birthday wishes, confessions, what have you – to be posted to your accounts after you pass on. The truly hardcore should check out LivesOn, a service that is essentially the first stab at social immortality. LivesOn analyzes your Twitter feed and uses information about your interests and writing style to write tweets for you after you die. The website’s tagline? “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.” Learn more here.

No matter how you feel about the post-mortem socialverse, you can be sure of two things: it's going to continue to grow indefinitely, and someday your accounts will be a part of it. Use the tools at your expense to take charge of your virtual gravestone so your second self can R.I.P., too. Have a plan in mind? Share it with us on Twitter at @sparkloftmedia.