Dying in a digital age


It speaks to some morbid part of me that, “What happens when I die?” is one of my most frequent late night Google searches. When I was in high school, the most common results involved religion, spirituality, maybe some neuroscience. In the most recent years though, I’ve noticed a shift in the sort of results that populate. When I ask, “What happens when I die?”, I’m usually in the middle of some sort of existential crisis, right? I’m pondering the ramifications of after lives and souls and whatnot. What I never really thought about was what would happen to my social media accounts – Facebook, Tumblr, etc. – that is, until Google started prodding me to.

When playing Blackbar, it’s hard to ignore the possibility of “elimination” – i.e., death. If you choose to cooperate with the government and comply with your rights-removal and elimination, the game abruptly ends because you no longer exist as a character. The last screen you see is a letter from the government, addressed to your poor mother. It explains that you have been eliminated and that your channel has been severed; it may no longer be used for any kind of communication. It is not enough that you have been murdered by the government. All digital traces of you have also been eliminated in the aftermath of your criminal activity.

To us, this idea of digital elimination can either be terrible or wonderful. Do we want to be remembered by our middle school Facebook posts, our drunken Tweets, our Tinder profiles? Should our loved ones be allowed to go through our Pinterests, our Tumblrs, our Instagrams?

Just today, Facebook announced its official policy for how it would deal with you after death. While you’re still alive, you may assign someone as your “legacy contact.” After you die, that legacy contact will be allowed to pin a post onto your Timeline, probably something along the lines of a funeral announcement or eulogy. They can’t log in as you or access your inbox but they can keep your Facebook running – accepting/rejecting friend requests, updating cover & profile photos, archiving posts, etc. This is in addition to their previous “memorializing” function, where your profile could be effectively frozen once your friends and family reported your death. A memorialized profile can only be seen by the deceased user’s friends and cannot be searched.

The rise of the digital age has called for new ways of thinking of death beyond just the physical or spiritual. Courts are still debating on whether families should have access to their deceased loved one’s digital assets – should grieving families be allowed to go through old emails and Tumblr posts? The same way one must consider a will and testament, funeral arrangements, and the like before they actually pass away, one must now also plan for what will happen to their digital accounts. In 2013, Google released an article cheerily titled, “Plan your digital afterlife with Inactive Account Manager.” In the same way Facebook has had to consider how to deal with deceased users, Google has given us the power to decide what happens to our digital assets once we die. We can have data deleted, preserved, shared, whatever.

Vi’s elimination in Blackbar is only complete once her channel has been shut down by the government. She had no agency in how that played out because the goal was complete erasure of an entire person, physically and digitally. In our reality, we leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, whenever we use our credit cards or even cross a street, thanks to street cameras. Anonymity is harder than ever. If our government ever wanted to make me disappear, to make it seem as though I never existed, they would really have their work cut out for them. Elementary school Neopets accounts, middle school Myspace pages, high school Facebook posts, college Instagram likes – they’d have to literally erase years of my life from existence. But I have no doubt they’d be able to do it and, once they did, there would be no digital trace of me. For someone who grew up blasting my thoughts on Xanga, Livejournal, Tumblr, etc., the idea of my words just disappearing from the Internet is just as eerie as the thought of having all traces of my dorm room possessions being swept away by some faceless group of people, leaving nothing behind but empty space. In an increasingly digital society, our digital lives become entwined with our physical ones – there is no one or the other. In that same way, we can no longer consider physical death without being confronted with the idea of digital death as well.

0 thoughts on “Dying in a digital age

  1. I was recently thinking about this and how, in this day and age, an erasure of lives is actually more probable than you think. I was scrolling through tumblr and I noticed that someone mentioned Leelah Alcorn. For those who are unaware, she is a 17-year-old transgender teen who committed suicide due to her parents’ transphobia. She had used her tumblr to post art and feelings; until her death, where she posted a suicide note. Her mother decide to, post-mortem, take control of Leelah’s tumblr and facebook and requested they be removed (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2895534/Heartbreaking-suicide-note-17-year-old-transgender-girl-DELETED-Tumblr-page-candlelit-vigils-held-honor.html).

    Even when people live in the hearts and memories of the living, having that digital presence becomes the new corporeality. In a time where you can befriend someone for 10 years from the other side of the world and never be able to actually meet them in person, digital life becomes the new corporeality. When her media was deleted (when the #BlackLivesMatter tag was wiped from tumblr memory), the media is trying to remove her from our minds as well. It’s sad how these lives become a fad, and the media is making sure that there is no trace after the novelty runs out. What scares me about death most of all is not the actual process of decay, but what I leave behind. Like you said, Steph, I have a huge digital footprint. I want to be assured that I still resonate in someone’s timeline years after I pass away. In a society where headlines change daily, I can’t rely on the persistence of memory.

  2. One interesting thing MP said in class last time is the idea of dying versus looking like you never lived. Maybe there is something different in terms like “elimination” and “death.” One is intentional, meant to erase you and whatever online footprint you’ve set for yourself, the other term implies a legacy. Will Vi’s elimination have a legacy? Just some rambling!

  3. I would like to challenge this a bit. While one’s digital footprint is important, is it really the most important thing to remain after death? Is our society really so digital that we can account our worth through our actions online? I would venture to say that it is still our physical remnants that are more important.

    “I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”-Banksy.

  4. This has to be one of my favorite posts because it has made me think about an aspect of my life that I have never thought about before. Not only does Steph combine course material with material that she is personally interested in, she also writes in a way that prompts the reader to think about this material and internalize their thoughts. For example, I also have a Facebook and various social media accounts, as well as have made comments on tons of YouTube videos, but I have never thought about what happens to all of these accounts once I die. This post is great because it has a lasting impact on me and I am left wondering: Is our life like Vi’s in the fact that we are truly dead once we have been erased, both physically and digitally? After we die, are we in some way still alive through our old social media accounts? These are questions that I will be thinking about for a long time, and this post is so great because it makes me think about these questions.

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