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Image: Andras Vas, Unsplash (PD)

On 16 October 2015, I opened Facebook and was greeted with the company’s new memories function: ‘On This Day’. It showed a photo I had taken one year previous, outside a hospital room. It was taken five days before my brother had died in that same room, at a stage we still held out hope that he would recover from the metastatic cancer that raged through his body. I had forgotten that I had taken this photo, let alone posted it on social media. A cold sweat prickled my skin and my chest constricted as Facebook encouraged me to share it again. I shut my laptop and stared into space for a few minutes; I had known that the first anniversary of his death was getting closer. I could feel it in the air, in the way that the seasons were changing and my body responding to the warmth and the scents of spring. But being reminded so vividly and in such a public way left me feeling suddenly unmoored; suddenly unprepared.

Over the next few days, my feed began to fill with posts from people commemorating my brother’s life and his death. Each post was addressed to him, as if he was somewhere in the ether on the other side of a computer screen, reading the messages. I began to feel the pressure to write something myself; I began to feel that if I did not participate in this act of online grief, people would think me cold-hearted or uncaring. So, on the anniversary of his death, I wrote a post about him. It felt, somehow, both cathartic and performative; it felt like I was exposing some ugly part of myself that wanted sympathy and recognition. And I felt strangely disgusted with myself. After a few days had passed, I went through my social media and deleted any posts and photos that made me feel too exposed or felt too triggering. But now, almost five years later, I wonder if I had been too hasty; I can barely remember what they might have been.

Grieving in the age of social media is relatively new, considering that social media itself has really only been around for about fifteen years. Originally created as spaces for the living to connect and share online, sites such as Facebook have had to adapt as their users have started to die.

Originally created as spaces for the living to connect and share online, sites such as Facebook have had to adapt as their users have started to die.

For Facebook, it quickly became apparent to that deleting the accounts of dead users was causing a lot of problems. Living users had begun using these profiles as places of mourning and remembrance. In 2007, Facebook began allowing the profiles of dead users to be ‘memorialised’. Once someone contacted Facebook to inform them that a user had passed away, that user’s profile would be effectively frozen in time. A ‘Remembering’ title would be placed above the user’s name and nothing about the page could be changed or deleted. Other users could still post on their wall to remember them, but these wouldn’t appear in friends’ newsfeeds, and notifications such as birthday reminders would stop.

Other platforms have been slower to employ these measures. Instagram began memorialising accounts after it was purchased by Facebook in 2012, but there is no ‘Remembering’ title, meaning that these accounts look just like those of a regular living user, just without any new activity. Towards the end of 2019, Twitter announced its plans to delete the accounts of users who had been inactive for more than six months. This was met with such public outcry that the company halted the decision and is now in the process of trying to create a way to memorialise the accounts of dead users instead.

By giving users the option of memorialising accounts, social media sites are in the process of being transformed into online cemeteries. It’s been estimated that in fifty years’ time, the number of dead users on Facebook alone will outweigh the living. The online world is fast becoming a place where both the living and the dead come together to create a new and uncanny kind of existence.

In her book All the Ghosts in the Machine, Elaine Kasket calls the internet ‘the new Elysium: not an exclusive place, not only for those favoured by the Greek gods, but for all of us. Provided, that is, you have a digital footprint.’ The more time you spend online and the more you participate in online activities, the greater your digital footprint. This is especially true of social media sites, which actively encourage users to share more and more of their lives online. With each post, each comment and each photo you share, you are writing another line in your autobiography to be potentially analysed and meditated over after you have died.

By making social media the equivalent of an online cemetery in the middle of everyday life, are we being forced to confront grief and memories when we are not ready?

Keeping social media accounts online after a death can, like grieving itself, prompt different reactions and emotions from different people. For some, these accounts act like the online equivalent of a shoebox full of mementos that can be fondly dipped into and out of whenever you feel like it. For others, though, it can be a constant source of fixation and can trigger a cycle of negative emotions. By making social media the equivalent of an online cemetery in the middle of everyday life, are we being forced to confront grief and memories when we are not ready? Are we being forced to continually live in the past, unable to more forward? On the flip side, is deleting a dead person’s social media account the equivalent of throwing that shoebox full of mementos into a fire? Is it the equivalent of destroying everything and ensuring that we will never be able to retrieve those memories, even when we feel ready?

I have always been an uneasy social media user; more of a lurker than a participant. I regularly take part in what Kasket calls social media ‘scrubbing’, that is, deleting information, posts, photos, and comments that I have made but that I feel don’t reflect who I am years, months, weeks, or even hours after they were made. I’ve even deleted whole accounts, several times, only to re-join the online world with fresh new accounts and a new vision for them.

Destruction of elements of the self is nothing new; it is not unusual to go through some period of transformation and actively get rid of things we no longer see as useful to, or aligned with, our current selves. This is particularly true of those who work within the arts; pre-internet creators such as Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and Vladimir Nabokov asked for their works to be destroyed after their death, and modern creators such as Banksy and Helen Garner have actively participated in the destruction of their own works. The act of destruction, however, has become significantly more complicated in the digital age where images, data, and information can be shared so quickly and easily. It has become much more difficult to erase all traces of past thoughts and past selves. But with the increase of self-exposure and data saturation, it seems that the desire for complete erasure has, for some, become more desirable, especially for the younger generation whose parents have documented their lives from birth on their own social media feeds. The ramifications of a digitally saturated life are, as yet, still not fully known. As Kasket says, ‘we seem to have all the power and control in the world over our information, and at the same time no power or control at all.’

If you die suddenly, before you have had a chance to think about and act on your digital legacy, who gets the last word on who you really were?

There is an unsettling paradoxical effect that social media has created in giving us the means to both preserve ‘life’ and destroy it. If you die suddenly, before you have had a chance to think about and act on your digital legacy, who gets the last word on who you really were? In 2015, Facebook introduced two new features; the first was that users could select a friend to be their ‘Legacy Contact’, giving them complete control over a deceased user’s Facebook page. The second was that a user could request their profile be deleted after their death.

One afternoon, while researching this article, I was almost hit by a car when walking my dog. After the shock of the near-death experience wore off, I immediately started to think about my own death ​and digital legacy. I spent the next few days going through old hard drives, deleting old useless files and photos, and digging around in my Facebook settings. On locating the ‘delete after death’ request, I paused for a moment. What did I really want to do with my Facebook account once I had died? Should I be erased and free from potentially being enshrined, or should I allow my ghost to roam the internet forever more? Do I want to live forever, even if it is only in a digitised form, or do I want the right to be forgotten? I can honestly say that I still don’t know. Part of me wants to be forgotten, but another part of me recognises that these places of remembering aren’t really for those who have gone, but for those who have been left behind. I closed my laptop, not having made a decision. I can only hope that I still have plenty of time to make up my mind.