Do the Dead Live On In Facebook?

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Think of how rich and deeply personal your online persona has become. Now think of what will happen to it when you die.

Until very recently, this question used to feel unusual or irrelevant for all but a tiny, ultrawired slice of the population. In a New York Times Magazine feature about online death last year, Rob Walker noted, “For most of us, the fate of tweets and status updates and the like may seem trivial.” But in the 15 months between then and now, the question of online death has become inescapable: thousands of Facebook users die each day. Facebook’s new Timeline begins with one’s birth. There is only one logical way for it to end.

Already, the service allows grieving loved ones to “memorialize” user profiles. These “In Memory Of” profiles have become a new mourning space, where memorial services can be organized, condolences can be collected, and, more interestingly, where a distinctive version of a person can be experienced and remembered. People can and do leave wall posts on the profiles of the dead. In this sense, a part of a person lives on online.

But what does that really mean? Philosophers have long struggled with similar questions about identity. They are, in some sense, uniquely disposed to answer these tricky questions about what becomes of the online dead. Some are beginning to try. Patrick Stokes, an Australian philosopher from Deakin University, recently published a paper called “Ghosts in the Machine: Do the Dead Live On In Facebook?” that addresses many of the issues raised by the survival of the dead online. What follows is my conversation with Stokes about the slippery nature of identity and the peculiar ways that we live and die online.

This is a strange and fascinating moment as we develop new rituals for the dead’s social media profiles. We are drawing on established traditions, but also developing new ones that take advantage of the technological affordances of the services we use. Facebook’s memorial profiles are not in an “online graveyard or cemetery,” Stokes says, “Instead we just have these dead people among us.”
You open your paper by noting that there is this increasing intersection of online life and offline death. What are some of the more striking examples of that phenomenon?

Stokes: Oh there are plenty of them. Think of when somebody famous dies and then there’s this kind of new reaction, where everyone immediately takes to Twitter and has to post some kind of comment on it. There’s this interesting kind of ritual that’s developed around that, around people saying certain kinds of things about people when they die.

Continue reading from The Atlantic’s senior writer Ross Andersen