death in the digital vernacular

When a digital life that may have long existed without a physical presence comes to an end, what should memorialisation look like? Memorials for bodily death often invoke simulacra of the human form – the cold faces of the death mask, post-mortem photograph or gravestone photograph. Else they push the body away entirely, covering corporeal remains with inscribed monoliths of stone.

The consumer side of the digital world is catching up. Facebook terms of conditions recently changed twice to make it easier and faster to delete an account of someone deceased. The first change included a specific request, a form, which was required in order to to delete the account of a deceased person. Part of this form required uploading “proof”’ of the person’s death – either in the form of an obituary or a death certificate. In the case of Rusty Foster this led to an accidental Facebook death in 2013 after he was mistakenly declared to Facebook as being deceased. However, it transpired that he merely had the same name as another user who had died in 2011 and the uploading of this earlier user’s obituary to the site had triggered a series of algorithmic events that conspired to digitally kill Foster. Luckily, Foster was allowed to be resurrected a few days later but this did highlight the potential of Facebook to be used as a platform for digital assassination.

As likes, posts, and any other behaviours or actions on Facebook are designated as the truth within the Facebook philosophical universe, these truths are then used to generate personalised advertising and data collection in aid of adding layers to our virtual identities. Thus, initiating one’s own death on Facebook naturally disrupts this system. A second, more recent, change in policy means that Facebook now requests a death certificate in order to corroborate reports of physical death necessitating the digital.

Death on Facebook takes one of two major forms – crystallization-type death or deletion type death. The decendent’s page either remains frozen in time and impervious to new communication and developments, or disappears into the digital ether. Other online social services lag further behind, keeping landing pages either as neglected husks, prey to spam and malware infiltration, or delete them altogether. If your Twitter contacts have begun to take strange amounts of interest in body-building or questionable diet supplements, their physical bodies may be suffering more than you anticipate.

Digital death calls for a form of memorialisation that reflects what is lost – algorithmic interaction, cryptocurrency, sponsored promotion, P2P contributions and cloud accounting. In the following pages we look towards developing a new visual language for death in the network. Current options ape physical settings of grief, from mourning pages where gifs and blingees of bouquets are left to communal cemetery-like sites that inter the digitally dead in neat cyber-rows, ready for visitors. In recognising that digital death is separate to physical death, we anticipate the necessity of designing for this separately. We owe the dead more than skeuomorphs can give them.