Are You Really Dead If You’re Still Alive Digitally?
If death wasn’t the end, would you leave behind a digital avatar of yourself for posterity to interact with?
A search for Jiah Khan on Twitter takes you to a verified account of a user tweeting about sun signs and taking time off the overwhelming presence of social media. However, the updates become slightly jarring when one is reminded of Jiah’s death in June 2013. Later, you realise that the tweets don’t go beyond May of the same year.
A search for Pratyusha Banerjee on Instagram leaves the user with a similar feeling. Though Pratyusha is still alive virtually – her last post being a picture with her boyfriend, smiling cheerfully for the camera – her suicide in 2016 shocked many, more so when the said boyfriend was embroiled with accusations of being its cause.
Both of these, two of numerous examples of accounts of deceased users across various social media platforms, seem to be frozen in a time-warp where people are always smiling, travelling or enjoying a fancy meal.
While it is a mundane, routine affair to make arrangements for bank accounts and property to be taken care of after death, not many people put their mind to taking care of a repertoire of the most intimate details of their life documented virtually.
By 2012, Facebook had about 30 million profiles of deceased users, no more than eight years since the social media platform first came into existence (Source: BBC). The same report suggests that about 8,000 Facebook users die everyday.
The website is expected to have more profiles of dead people than the living by 2098 (Soure: Daily Mail). In that case, what happens to the profiles the deceased users leave behind – their birthday reminders, tagged pictures, memories, friendship-celebration-videos? What is then made of a virtual existence which does not cease like its parallel corporeal one?
While Facebook allows for a ‘legacy contact’ to administer the account, Twitter and Instagram also allow for verified family members to take charge of accounts after the user’s death.
Social Media’s Own Stages of Grief
While it may be disconcerting for some to visit the accounts of the deceased on social media, for others it has become a coping mechanism of sorts.
Social media has given users its own version of the five stages of grief which is cathartic in its own way.
As people began living more and more of their lives online, it was only natural that longstanding cultural customs would find their place in cyberspace. Interacting with an individual’s Twitter profile after death might be compared to the practice of visiting a gravesite and leaving flowers or notes for the deceased.Michaelanne Dye, Social Media Manager, Georgia Institute of Technology, to Variety
Death, Digital Realm, and Popular Culture
What if death wasn’t the end? And as many transhumanists would be quick to point out – there’s a very good chance that it won’t be.
‘Black Mirror’, which debuted in 2011, is a TV show set against the backdrop of a society very deeply infested by technology, and therefore, its consequent pitfalls.
The first episode of the second season, Be Right Back, takes an interesting, but fairly unsettling take on it. The episode is about Martha and Ash, a couple who has just moved to a new house in the countryside. Ash ends up in a car crash right at the beginning of the episode, and the show takes the viewer into Martha’s attempts to cope with loneliness, loss and grief after his death. She purchases a build-to-order AI that uses all of Ash’s social media activity to model itself after him.
Martha provides the computer operated system with access to Ash’s pictures, videos and personal emails, who was already a compulsive social media addict and therefore had a large amount of content up online, and finds a fully automated, computerised version of Ash.
The AI adopts his voice and mannerisms, and looks like a physically groomed version of Ash, since he only had his best pictures up for display on the internet. The new Ash, however, misses out on small details which social media had failed to record – like a bodily flaw, reminding Martha that at the end of the day, she is only play-romancing an anthropomorphic computer.
But what if a digital existence that outlives your human existence wasn’t simply confined to the world of fiction?
Websites like Eterni.mi are now offering to make a digital avatar modelled on you, or anyone for that matter. The site describes the process as:
Eterni.me collects your thoughts, stories and memories, curates them and creates an intelligent avatar that looks like you. This avatar will live forever and allow other people in the future to access your memories.
So, if death wasn’t the end – would you be willing to leave behind a digital avatar of yourself for posterity to interact with?
On the other hand, however, social media is also a black hole, constantly being dumped with cluttering information, while the Internet’s memory span continues to get shorter and shorter over time.
Perhaps these digital ghosts would also fade with time, but not without leaving a trail, comforting for some, discomfiting for others, in their wake.
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