On death and social networking

I’ve often wondered about what happens to a person’s internet profiles and presences once the person stops living.
Let’s say Jimbo the Internet User dies. He has a Yahoo! for email, several accounts for on-line forums, accounts for AOL and MSN messenger, and accounts for the social networking site MySpace.

Yahoo! likely have a policy regarding dormant accounts. If the user fails to log in for a certain period of time, the account is tagged as ‘dormant.’ After a reasonable period of time,email in the dormant account is deleted. Perhaps Jimbo’s username is still kept in Yahoo!’s database, but for all intents and purposes Jimbo’s Yahoo! email account is as dead as he is.
Jimbo, being dead, stops posting comments on the Peculiarly Shaped Pieces of Dried Skin Forum. Nobody really notices since people’s true identities are not usually divulged in that kind of environment. If anyone does notice, they just conclude that Jimbo is no longer interested in strangely-shaped, dehydrated dermis (which is true in any case). The same is true for Jimbo’s other fora.
Jimbo stops logging on to AOL and MSN. Most of the people he interacted with here had met him in person, and hadn’t just got to know him through the internet. In all likelihood, these people know he’s dead, have attended his funeral, and are not surprised by his missing buddy-icon.
Jimbo stops logging on to MySpace, and stops adding stuff to his profile or his friends pages. This is where it all goes a bit weird.

Like the instant messaging technologies, people who knew Jimbo in the physical world interacted with him via social networking sites. These people went to his funeral and are saddened by his passing.
Unlike the instant messaging technologies, Jimbo’s MySpace profile is persistent (at least initially, since Jimbo was a very active user on the site). He doesn’t have to log into it for it to still be accessible by his friends and people who knew him. The friends still access his profile, and post public comments to him. They address the comments to him, and some talk to him as if he is still alive.

I hadn’t come across profiles of dead people before now. I’ve speculated about the stuff regarding email, forum, and instant messaging accounts. Thanks to an article in the Mail & Guardian, I am no longer speculating about MySpace accounts. A site exists which commemorates the deaths of MySpace users, and links to their MySpace profiles. It contains obituaries, which are mostly written quite tastefully.
Following links to the deceased person’s MySpace profile is where the oddness ensues. I found people wishing their dead friends a happy birthday, or happy Easter, a year and a half after the person’s death.
I suppose it is a way to express emotions and to be able to “talk” to a dead loved one, even though there will be no response. It feels like there might be, because interacting via MySpace (or Facebook) never required both participants to be present at the same time. Since the messages are visible to the public, it makes it feel like maybe the message will also get to the dead person. It’s unlikely that people would keep sending email to a dead person’s email account because no-one else will see that, and so how could you be certain that the communication ever took place at all. If there is no evidence of the communication, then the grieving party will have to accept more readily that their loved one is physically gone.
The presence of a dead person’s profile just seems to prolong the act of grieving. The profile is still there, just like it was when the deceased was alive. This is similar to the situation of a grieving parent keeping a dead child’s room just the way it was when the child died. Except, in the case of MySpace, the page is dynamic while the child’s bedroom is not. People keep posting to the page, keeping it alive, supporting the illusion that if the page is still alive, so is the person. The bedroom doesn’t do that. The bedroom is trapped in the past, and still a symbol of denial, but it’s quite clear that the living person is missing.
The MySpace profile of a dead person doesn’t show that. Although the dead person never responds, they didn’t respond when they were away on holiday either. Perhaps they’ve just taken a long holiday?

It took a while going through the various MySpace profiles linked to from MyDeathSpace before I found an error message, informing me that the profile did not exist or had been removed.
The profile was gone, in the same way the person was gone. This seemed much healthier to me.

7 thoughts on “On death and social networking”

  1. Interesting issue you have raised. I have a friend who is now deceased for over 6 years. He was truly a genius and programming guru. While his domains, company, emails etc have all lapsed and gone to Internet Heaven his name still comes up in Google Searches on articles, posts etc that he had written during his time here. So while the usual “services” like email, web site etc, that someone owns while they are alive, may disappear, some things live on and will probably keep appearing in Search Engines for many many years. Nice to know 🙂

  2. Happy afterlife, Jimbo! That’s what one might say. The account still exists, a picture is there, some former thoughts of the dead person are written for anyone to see. How can you miss someone that you see every day… How is it possible not to?
    In todays world, the dead and the living will get along very well across the internet…
    Great post.

  3. Fermit:
    I suppose it is useful for many people to think that, although their lives end, their legacy will continue. However I don’t think enough people consider this while posting on forums, given the invective I’ve read in quite a few places. A record of your bad behaviour remains after you do not.

    The Internet as a modern day Ouija Board — a most disturbing image you’ve planted in my mind.

  4. It’s not really unreasonable if you see someone leaving a ‘happy birthday’ note to a deceased man on his MySpace. Same when you bring flowers to a deceased person’s grave, it’s all about memory. It just happens that a MySpace for a deceased person become a virtual grave where people can still visit from time to time to remember how good a friend he/she was. Only point is whether this virtual grave should be kept forever since people can’t live in the past and sometimes has to move on. A widow losing her husband would not start her new life if she keeps looking back to her memory.

  5. Sam:
    “Virtual grave.” Another creepy term, but your analogy is apt. It does make more sense to me when you put it like that.
    Still, the flowers at the grave wilt, and people are always sombre and respectful in cemeteries. Comments on MySpace stay there, and lots of the comments indicate that the people don’t give virtual graves the same respect as their physical world counterparts.

  6. Great post Neil; I’d never even thought about this until now. We humans really are strange creatures sometimes.

    You know, disturbing as it may be, I’m sure there’s actually a market for virtualgraveyard.com.

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