Facebook is Growing an Unstoppable Digital Graveyard
The day after my Aunt’s passing, I discovered she’d written me a lovely note on the front page of the Shakespeare collection she’d given me. “I know how important the written word is to you,” it read, “this then is my gift to you.”
With all of my love, as always,
Deeply moved, I opened my laptop and found my way over to her Facebook page. I thought it would be comforting to see pictures of her, and to read some of her witty posts, and to imagine her speaking them in her brassy, brazen, Baltimore screech. At the top of her Facebook feed was a video posted by my cousin showing two elephants playing in water. (My aunt loved elephants. She had thousands of pieces of elephant kitsch all over her house.) Below that were some tributes from former students, as well as the obituary posted by her sister-in-law.
I scrolled back up. According to Facebook, Aunt Jackie studied English Education at Frostburg State University, was a former English Department Head for Baltimore City schools, and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Lives? I thought. She doesn’t live anywhere. She’s gone.But if you happened to come across her profile on Facebook and didn’t scroll down to the obituary, then you wouldn’t know that.She would still be, in some sense, alive. She would be … here. On Facebook.
I thought back to the night my family and I stood around Aunt Jackie, hooked to wires and machines, and watched her pass. Observing that phenomenon is a strange thing. There she is, the person you love – you’re talking to her, squeezing her hand, thanking her for being there for you, watching the green zigzag move slower and slower – and then she’s not there anymore.
Another machine, meanwhile, was keeping her alive: some distant computer server that holds her thoughts, memories and relationships. While it’s obvious that people don’t outlive their bodies on digital technology, they do endure in one sense. People’s experience of you as a seemingly living person can and does continue online. How is our continuing presence in digital space changing the way we die? And what does it mean for those who would mourn us after we are gone?
The numbers of the dead on Facebook are growing fast. By 2012, just eight years after the platform was launched, 30 million users with Facebook accounts had died. That number has only gone up since. Some estimates claim more than 8,000 users die each day.
At some point in time, there will be more dead Facebook users than living ones. Facebook is a growing and unstoppable digital graveyard.
Many Facebook profiles announce their owners have passed; they are “memorialised”. The profile is emblazoned with the word “remembering”, and they stop appearing in public spaces, like People You May Know or birthday reminders.
But not all Facebook users who have passed away are memorialised.
Kerry, one of my college dorm mates, killed himself a few years ago, and his wife and family and friends regularly post updates on his page, and when they do, Kerry’s profile populates in my Facebook feed.
Neither Kerry nor my Aunt Jackie are memorialised, which means, for all intents and purposes, their deaths haven’t been recognised by Facebook, or by the unwitting users who chance upon them. Their digital identities continue to exist.
Social media has taught us about the power of the moment – connecting right now with people around the globe over awards show, television programmes, football games, social justice issues, and whatnot. But now it may be time to consider what comes after all that: our legacy.
It used to be that only certain prominent people were granted legacies, either because they left written records for their forebears, or because later inquisitive minds undertook that task. But digital technology changes that. Now, each of us spends hours each week – more than 12, according to arecent survey – writing our autobiographies.
As I’ve told my mother, my grandchildren may be able to learn about her by studying her Facebook profile. Assuming the social network doesn’t fold, they won’t just learn about the kinds of major life events that would make it into my mom’s authorised biography. They’ll learn, rather, the tiny, insignificant details of her day to day life: memes that made her laugh, viral photos she shared, which restaurants she and my father liked to eat at, the lame church jokes she was too fond of. And of course, they’ll have plenty of pictures to go with it. By studying this information, my grandchildren will come to know about their great grandmother.
We might think of our public social media record as some type of digital soul: those perusing my Facebook know my religious beliefs, my political reservations, my love for my partner, my literary tastes. Were I to die tomorrow, my digital soul would continue to exist.
In the past few years, several tech companies have extended the idea of a digital soul. Eterni.me, launched in 2014, promises to create a digital version of “you” that will live on after your death. Death is certain, admits the website — but what if you could live forever as a digital avatar, “and people in the future could actually interact with your memories, stories and ideas, almost as if they were talking to you?”
If programs like Eterni.me succeed, not only will my grandchildren be able to study my mother’s life, if they want they’ll be able to ask her avatar – their intelligent, digital “great grandmother” – questions and receive answers that my mother, before she passed away, would have probably given them.
You could take this process even further, as several futurists predict. Consider a robot that was commissioned by the entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, called Bina 48. The robot is almost identical in appearance to Rothblatt’s wife, and contains a database of her speech and memories.
Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human and the CEO of United Therapeutics, is a transhumanist whose motto is “death is optional”. Rothblatt foresees a near-future world in which the dead can be reanimated thanks to mind clone software that can allow avatars to think and respond and be in an eerily similar way to those they’re cloning.
When asked about the concept of real, Rothblatt once said that these mind clones might end up being “truer” versions of ourselves than we are.
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