Maintaining the digital footprint of the deceased is not without its challenges. (image via lanier67)
As content strategists, we’re used to working with lifecycles. We create content, watch it flourish, and then put it to rest when outdated or no longer useful. The same lifecycle exists (or should exist, anyway) for brands, campaigns, websites…any medium, really. But in this social media age, our creations can develop lives all their own. Content may be repurposed and exist outside our control, it may be archived as just one among a stream of our creations, or it may even truly outlive us.
The latter observation entered my consciousness in an unwelcomed fashion this spring. A very good friend died much too young, losing a lifelong battle with depression and all its demons.
My friend was always connected, always available. In the days following his death, it pained me to log into instant messaging and see his account still online, though “Idle.” It pained me even more when I noticed one day he’d been logged off, his icon never to again grace my active contacts list. The FTP server where we’d shared media soon went down, too. It was official: my friend was permanently offline.
But in the social cloud, traces live on. His Twitter account remains active, but only in a technical sense—he hadn’t tweeted anything in nearly a year. He wasn’t terribly active on Facebook, either, yet his profile wall has taken on an afterlife all its own.
Around the funeral date, friends and family gathered virtually to share their grief. A particularly moving memorial was posted upon request days after the service. Remembrances continued to trickle in, their frequency dwindling as the weeks passed by.
I stopped checking his wall about a month after he was laid to rest. The stories and reminiscences continued to move me, but oftentimes too much so. I thought it time to let my friend go in the online space, just as I was forced to do in offline reality. And for a while, that tactic worked. Mutual friends occasionally would ask if I’d seen such-and-such post, and when I answered no they would relate it to me so we could share in its wisdom and our pain.
But, Facebook being Facebook, every once in a while I’d be prompted to “say hello” to my friend. I could not willfully ignore his profile without hiding it or de-friending him—neither acceptable options.
Just this week, I decided to stop by his wall. Four months after his passing, my friend’s Facebook wall now functions as group therapy where anything goes, ranging from wish-you-were here sighs to irresolvable anger at our collective loss.
I’ve discovered the ability to smile at and sometimes laugh along with the posts. A lump still rises in my throat every now and again, but it’s reassuring to see that he continues to factor just as vividly into the daily thoughts of others as he does with me.
And thanks to the social cloud, we can share in our healing among the company and comfort of friends. For as long as we have media like Facebook, the content lifecycle can be endless.
But some people are questioning whether this is necessarily the best way of handling the digital footprint of the deceased. The New York Times points out in a recent article “As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out” that Facebook has an ongoing challenge in balancing the need for public memorials with the acute pain of personal loss.
What do you think? If something were to happen to you, would you want your social networking accounts to remain open for use by friends and family? Are there risks associated with open-ended memorials?