The new keeper of the digital afterlife?

Patrick Nichols   August 5, 2010

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 We create content, watch it flourish, and then put it to rest when outdated or no longer useful.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?

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6 Responses

  1. Keri says:

    Sorry to hear about your friend. I was shocked to find out recently about a person I knew that also took his life. Life has its challenges, but it’s a very precious gift. No argument, difference of agreements, opportunity gone wrong is worth more than the value of someone’s life. We need to realize this and whatever it is -that too shall pass.

    Obviously, this friend was very much loved, appreciated and liked by others. We need to celebrate life. It’s wonderful for just being YOU even with your imperfections. We need to have a place to reach out to others to share our hurt and frustrations that is accepted in a comfortable environment before it maybe too late. I can understand why your friend may have stopped using social media when he/she became depressed. We need to reach out to people more personally and not just virtually to check-in and make sure is everything ok?

    It sounds like Facebook has helped your friends to heal and impact others with their words, while understand each breath, each day, and each moment is a blessing. I hope that many of those people were close enough to this person to also made time to call, get together face-to-face, and maybe suggest to the person to seek medical help and discuss his/her problems.

    Every personal memory lives on for eternity and if it can help one to feel better contributing on a blog, a website such as Tributes.com, or Facebook to pay their respects. Yet, there are some risks involved with people that make poor judgments and may post things inappropriate, or just rely on social media as the only social means to communicate. I think it’s important for people to have a place to send their condolences. In this digital age, it’s another way for one’s digital footprint to last a lifetime. However, in my opinion, the personal memories made together are all the more wonderful.

  2. Joe Doyle says:

    Great post.

    I think it should live on – what does it hurt? In fact, by your show of gratitude on continual visits, it seems to help with grieving and other emotions.

    Maybe there is room for a time capsule of sorts. Something that collects our digital memories and bottles them up for generations to come.

  3. Louise S. says:

    I had a kid I used to babysit die way too young and while it was before the age of Facebook, the local newspaper had a wall set up in their obituary section. I was able to see parts of his life through that wall that I would have never seen had he died 20 years earlier! It did get overwhelming at times, but like you, I took a break and when I went back it was a blessing to see the posts! I hope that if anything were to happen to me the networking sites would allow friends to remember me and use the site to help them move through their grief!

  4. Meghan R. says:

    I think these situations are most painful for the close family members who have lost their loved ones. I think untimely it should be up to them except in some cases it isn’t. Facebook memorializes their pages and it isn’t so easy to get them down for family members. This is especially troublesome in traumatic situations. Something that may seem ok for friends may be nightmarish for the families.

  5. Patrick Nichols says:

    Meghan, I think you hit on a really important point. In the case of my friend, his wife did indeed initiate the process to have the profile closed. She also closed her own profile but later opened a new one under her maiden name and with just a subset of the original friends list. Clearly, she wanted no part of the endless online memorializing, and I can’t say I’d react any differently were it my own spouse we’d lost.

    Today I visited his Facebook page for the first time in a while, and I noticed a new note added by a work colleague from some years back. He had just recently learned of the death, and in his note he proceeded to detail how my friend died as well as catalog remembrances of his dark side from the ’90s. Way too much information for this friend, and certainly too much for most family members.

  6. Hi! Sorry to hear about your friend. Our online life is a big part of our life now and the memories and info we share will be lost unless we make provisions to pass them on to our family and friends. Digital estate planning websites help to do this so that loved ones have access to one’s digital assets and can also tie up digital loose ends as per one’s wishes.

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