Naomi Rachel Oldham
West London, United Kingdom
|“Dead Prescence in the Digital Age” by Naomi Rachel Oldham
Exhibited in the Blyth Gallery May 9-24, 2018
Our digital selves remain present in the world even after we have died. Social media and email accounts, websites to which we have subscribed, photos, videos, and voice messages persist after death. What might this mean when considering an individual’s presence or absence in the world?
Throughout different periods of human history, physical memorials have provided a means of remembering the dead and interacting with them.1,2 In the Victorian era, for instance, people often wore jewelry made from parts of the human corpse such as hair.3 With the rise of new technologies and social media platforms, many of our interactions and lives continue to exist online, “our identities extended from physical to digital space.”4 After death these online traces remain accessible to the living and constitute digital memorials or “virtual ‘graveyards.’”5 Social networking user profiles such as those on Facebook can become memorialized, no longer maintained by the user but by online “friends” and connections who can continue to access and post on the page.6
Worldwide there are around 2.13 billion monthly active Facebook users.7 It has been established that 428 users die every hour and it is estimated that if Facebook stops growing, by 2065 the number of dead users will surpass the living.8 This presence of online digital traces of the dead challenges “the boundary between life and death,”9 resulting in a living person possibly maintaining an online connection with someone dead. It has been suggested that “virtual technologies are truly changing conventional views on death”10 and “destabilising traditional boundaries between life and death.”11 The concept of a person being absent traditionally means being distanced from the place and time where their absence is felt. Correspondingly, “absence necessitates a relation to a lived place-time,”12 but a person’s presence online has “no determinable spatiotemporality”13 and highlights the paradox that a person can be both present and absent.14
The classical image of the human body is that of a “completed, detached individual unit”15 with defined boundaries. Communicating and interacting online would seem to challenge the traditional view of distinct boundaries between an individual and the outside environment.16 It posits the concept that human beings themselves have drawn an artificial distinction between the body and the environment, whereas modern media life allows for the paradox of being absent and present in the world so that “visual and auditory signs of human personality [are] no longer tightly tied to the presence of a person’s body.”17 It would follow that in the digital age it has become “difficult to determine where a person ‘is,'”18 posing the question of “where am I when my traces are all over?”19 We know our online traces are “there” but we do not know exactly where. In the same way, the living may feel the dead as if they are “there,” through their online traces that remain accessible in the world.
Digital traces of individuals, left through their social media profiles and other online accounts clearly exist. But alongside this the last decade has seen the establishment of “death apps,”20 digital platforms which allow sending posthumous messages from beyond the grave.21 The services of these digital platforms range from allowing users to construct messages to be sent after their death, to creating an avatar or virtual self which promises to continue interacting with the living in perpetuity. Such platforms engage with questions, fears, and beliefs that have continued to fascinate human beings over the centuries such as the “desire for immortality, or at least remembrance.”22 Some such platforms are now accessible for use.
DeadSocial23 allows users to upload photographs, videos, and messages that can be sent out by social networking sites such as Facebook after the user is dead. Such messages can be sent for up to 999 years into the future, allowing the user to have an active role after death. The DeadSocial website platform displays the comment of one user who it claims states “Death, smeath. Now you can die and still participate in social media!”24 Another service titled LivesOn,25 which has been deactivated, promised to allow users to post tweets on Twitter after death. The app used the tagline “[w]hen your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”26 The service was advertised as being able to harness “algorithms which analyse your online behavior”27 to continue to generate tweets posthumously. Various other services, such as LifeNaut28 use artificial intelligence enabling the user to create an interactive virtual avatar based on content the user has uploaded before their death, aiming to interact with others in perpetuity.
These sites generate discussion over what it means for the dead to be present or absent to those living in the world. Indeed, our relationship with death and the dead is closely interlinked with notions of presence and absence.29 Traditionally the dead are absent and the living are present. Online social media platforms enable individuals to be “completely physically absent”30 yet paradoxically to be present to the living. In her TedX talk, London School of Economics doctorate student Paula Kiel speaks of how one of the last things we expect is the dead sending photographs or messages on social media sites, and considers the striking idea that the dead could be present and active online without appearing distinct or separate from the living. Such ability to interact without the need for a physical body challenges the way we view life and death, allowing our future interactions to outstrip our physical death.31
- Wendy Moncur and David Kirk. “An Emergent Framework for Digital Memorials” (paper presented at 2014 conference on Designing Interactive Systems, Vancouver, Canada, June 2014).
- Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey, Death, Memory and Material Culture (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001).
- Elizabeth Drescher, “Pixels Perpetual Shine: The Mediation of Illness, Dying and Death in the Digital Age,” CrossCurrents 62, no.2 (2012): 205, doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-3881.2012.00230.x.
- James Braman, Alfreda Dudley, and Giovanni Vincenti, “Death, Social Networks and Virtual Worlds: A Look into the Digital Afterlife” (paper presented at Ninth International Conference on Software Engineering Research, Management and Applications, Baltimore, USA, August 10-12, 2011), 188.
- Jed R Brubaker and Gillian R Hayles, “We will never forget you [online]: An empirical investigation of post-mortem MySpace comments” (paper presented in CSCW’11 Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Hangzhou, China, March 19-23, 2011).
- Menlo Park, “Facebook Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2017 results,” CISON PR Newswire. January 31, 2018. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/facebook-reports-fourth-quarter-and-full-year-2017-results-300591468.html.
- Michael Hiscock, “Dead Facebook users will soon outnumber the living,” The Loop. https://www.theloop.ca/dead-facebook-users-will-soon-outnumber-the-living/.
- Gennys Howarth, “Dismantling the boundaries between life and death,” Mortality 5, no.2 (2000): 134, doi: 10.1080/713685998.
- Ming Lim, “The digital consumption of death: reflections on virtual mourning practices on social networking sites,” in The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption, ed. Russell W Belk and Rosa Llamas (Oxford: Routledge, 2013), 401.
- Jenny Michelle Huberman, “The digital double burial: resurrecting Hertz in the digital age,” Mortality 23, no.4 (2017): 6, doi:10.1080/13576275.2017.1351937.
- Lars Frers, “The matter of absence,” Cultural Geographies 20, no.4 (2013): 434, doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474013477775.
- Joohan Kim, “Phenomenology of Digital-Being,” Human Studies 24, no.1-2 (2001), 98, doi: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010763028785.
- Hallam, Death, Memory, p.39.
- Julian Pepperell, The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness beyond the brain (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2003).
- Peters cited in Amanda Lagerkvist, “Existential media: Toward a theorization of digital thrownness,” New Media & Society 19, no.1 (2016): 105, doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816649921.
- Pepperell, The Posthuman Condition, p.5.
- Lagerkvist, Existential media, p.105.
- Dan Sung, “The ghost in your machine: death in the social media age,” The Metro, August 17, 2017. https://www.metro.news/the-ghost-in-your-machine-death-in-the-social-media-age/713145/.
- Sue Jamison-Powell et al, “P.S. I love you: understanding the impact of posthumous digital messages,” (paper presented at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Association for Computing Machinery, Santa Clara, California, USA, May 7-12, 2016).
- Evan Carroll and John Romano, Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook. Flickr and Twitter are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? (USA: New Riders, 2010), 64.
- “DeadSocial- Prepare for Death Digitally & Build Your Digital Legacy,” DeadSocial, accessed November 4, 2018, http://www.deadsocial.org.
- Kasushik cited in DeadSocial.
- Theo Merz, “LivesOn review: can Twitter make you immortal?,” The Telegraph, August 16, 2013. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/mobile-app-reviews/10246708/LivesOn-review-can-Twitter-make-you-immortal.html.
- Will Coldwell, “Why death is not the end of your social media life,” The Guardian, February 18, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/media/shortcuts/2013/feb/18/death-social-media-liveson-deadsocial.
- “LifeNaut eternalize,” LifeNaut, accessed November 4, 2018, https://www.lifenaut.com.
- Paula Kiel, “Dead online: practices of post-mortem digital interaction” (paper presented at 16th Annual Meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, Phoenix, USA, October 21-24, 2015).
- Braman, Death, Social Networks.
- Braman, James, Alfreda Dudley and Giovanni Vincenti. “Death, Social Networks and Virtual Worlds: A Look Into the Digital Afterlife.” Paper presented at the Ninth International Conference on Software Engineering Research, Management and Applications, Baltimore, USA. August 10-12, 2011.
- Brubaker, Jed R, Gillian R Hayles. ““We will never forget you [online]”: an empirical investigation of post-mortem myspace comments.” Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2011 ACM conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Hangzhou, China, March 19-23, 2011.
- Carroll, Evan and John Romano. Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy?. USA, New Riders, 2010.
- Coldwell, Will. “Why death is not the end of your social media life.” The Guardian, February 18, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/media/shortcuts/2013/feb/18/death-social-media-liveson-deadsocial.
- DeadSocial. “DeadSocial- Prepare for Death Digitally & Build Your Digital Legacy,” Accessed November 6, 2018. http://deadsocial.org.
- Drescher, Elizabeth. “Pixels Perpetual Shine: The Mediation of Illness, Dying, and Death in the Digital Age.” CrossCurrents 62, no. 2 (2012): 204-218. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-3881.2012.00230.x.
- Frers, Lars. “The matter of absence.” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 4 (2013): 431-445. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474013477775
- Hallam, Elizabeth and Jenny Hockey. Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001.
- Hiscock, Michael. “Dead Facebook users will soon outnumber the living.” The Loop. https://www.theloop.ca/dead-facebook-users-will-soon-outnumber-the-living/.
- Howarth, Glennys. “Dismantling the boundaries between life and death.” Mortality 5, no. 2 (2000): 127-138. doi: 10.1080/713685998.
- Huberman, Jenny Michelle. “The digital double burial: resurrecting Hertz in the digital age.” Mortality 23, no. 4 (2018): 334-349. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/13576275.2017.1351937.
- Jamison-Powell, Sue, Pam Briggs, Shaun Lawson, Conor Lineham, Karen Windle and Harriet Gross. “P.S. I love you: understanding the impact of posthumous digital messages.” Paper presented at 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Association for Computing Machinery, California, USA, May 07-12, 2016.
- Kiel, Paula. “Dead online: practices of post-mortem digital interaction.” Paper presented at the 16th Annual Meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, Phoenix, USA, October 21-24, 2015.
- Kim, Joohan. “Phenomenology of Digital-Being.” Human Studies 24, no. 1-2 (2001): 87-111. doi: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010763028785.
- LifeNaut. “LifeNaut eternalize.” Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.lifenaut.com.
- Lim, Ming. “The digital consumption of death: reflections on virtual mourning practices on social networking sites.” In The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption, edited by Russell W Belk and Rosa Llamas, 396-403. London: Routledge, 2012.
- Merz, Theo. “LivesOn review: can Twitter make you immortal?.” The Telegraph, August 16, 2013.
- Moncur, Wendy and David Kirk. “An emergency framework for digital memorials.” Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2014 conference on Designing interactive systems, Vancouver, Canada. June 21-25, 2014.
- Park, Menlo. “Facebook Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2017 Results,” Accessed November 5, 2018. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/facebook-reports-fourth-quarter-and-full-year-2017-results-300591468.html.
- Pepperell, Julian. The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness beyond the brain. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2003.
- Sung, Dan. “The ghost in your machine: death in the social media age.” The Metro, August 17, 2017. https://www.metro.news/the-ghost-in-your-machine-death-in-the-social-media-age/713145/.
NAOMI RACHEL OLDHAM, was born and grew up in West London. Throughout school she became passionate about both the humanities and sciences and was conflicted whether to study medicine or literature at university. She decided to study medicine but still has a passion for the humanities, and was able pursue her creative interests through the Medical Humanities, Philosophy and Law degree at Imperial College London. Here, she developed the inspiration for this essay on how social media and technology can alter the presence or absence of the dead.