Posthumous posts | Daily News

Posthumous posts

When I submitted my manuscript, I was in a hurry. My subject was death in the digital age and technological change was unfolding at a breakneck pace. Five new iPhones alone were released between the day I signed my contract and my publication date. If death had been my sole focus, there would have been little cause to gallop to the presses. Philippe Ariès (1914–84), the medievalist and cultural historian, argued that there have been only a handful of major shifts in attitude to death in the West over the past two millennia. Ariès’s taxonomy ranged from the familiar, matey, “Tamed Death” of the early Middle Ages to the rather scarier “Forbidden Death” of more recent times, when death acquired the “taboo” quality that we so readily associate it with today. Yet there are signs that the tide is turning. The Danish sociologist Michael Hviid Jacobsen believes that a new shift has occurred since Ariès’s day, and that we now find ourselves in the “Age of Spectacular Death” in which the quick and the dead are continuously shuffled together on the internet like a pack of cards. These days, death’s pageant plays out online, paradoxically rendered both closer to and further away from its audience.

I did not expect any sudden, radical developments in grief and mourning research to spring up and stale my manuscript. After my decade of research on the psychological aspects of online mourning and technologically mediated grief, it seemed evident that the more things change, the more they are the same. Continuing to integrate the dead into our lives, carrying on some form of individual and collective relationship with them, has occurred in various ways across millennia and cultures. Our hyperconnected online environment is tailor-made for both memorializing and continuing bonds with our dead, particularly since the avatars of the deceased don’t vanish instantaneously on the demise of their offline corollaries.

In law, too – unfortunately – little was likely to alter before publication. Sluggish legal systems struggle to keep pace with nimble technology in many areas, and this is no exception. We navigate relying on an extremely out-of-date map that is unlikely to be much help but that we still use because it gives us the illusion that we are not lost. The EU’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), fresh out of the gate when I finished writing, summarily deflected responsibility for decisions about dead people’s data to its member states. And into the void created by insufficient and non-existent laws steps Big Tech.

Technology companies, of course, can change their terms and conditions as often as you change your socks. Of the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) group of socially influential big-tech behemoths, Facebook have done the most visible and continual job, at least, of considering the issue and trying to design solutions. In the early days, Facebook simply deleted the profiles of the dead, a policy that changed as the site became such a nexus in life that its significance for death was also transformed. By 2014, Facebook representatives were using the model and language of stewardship, positioning the company as a guardian and protector of deceased users’ explicit or inferred wishes. The “legacy contact” system was introduced in 2015, allowing a Facebook user to appoint a digital executor, who would be able to make very minor editorial changes such as adding friends after the user’s demise. That’s how things stood when I finally typed “The End”.

Publication month arrived, and I thought I’d got away with it. But right on cue, my contact at Facebook popped up on the Death Online Research Network Facebook group. He posted about an announcement just made by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer – who revealed that her company was introducing a raft of enhanced memorialization features, as of immediate effect. (Aware of how these new policies might date my book before it was even published, my contact apologised to me for the “obligatory obsolescence”).

I sat down to review the details. Just how inaccurate would they render my book? Several things had indeed changed. The 30 million people who reportedly visit memorialized profiles every month would now find a separate “Tributes” tab for memorial posts. Legacy contacts would become far more powerful moderators, able to change settings and to edit who can write or read what. AI would now be used to block birthday reminders for the deceased, or suggestions that a dead person’s presence might enliven your next event. At that point, rather than feeling panicked, I realized that my central arguments were uneffected by the changes.

We might laud Facebook’s willingness to grapple with the problem of deceased people’s data on their site, particularly since so few companies are dealing with it at all. Yet, no matter what systems and rules Facebook and any other big tech company develop, the idiosyncrasy of grief will flummox them every time. For every birthday reminder suspended when an artificially intelligent coroner declares a Facebook user DOSM (dead on social media), one mourner will breathe a sigh of relief and another will experience a paroxysm of secondary loss. One mother I interviewed was devastated when she ceased to receive birthday bulletins for her late daughter. She still exists for me, the bereft woman said. She’s still on Facebook, and it’s still her birthday. Even in their most well- intentioned efforts to work out what will and will not cause pain, the workers at Facebook fall victim to a common trap: the misapprehension that grief is more predictable and monolithic than it is. If grief were more consistent, it would be better for business. But the actual complexity of individual and collective bereavement poses design conundrums for any website, certainly one whose original mission statement did not include becoming an online cemetery and mourner liaison service, and for which functions it had not budgeted. This brings us to another problem.

Social media companies are profit-making machines that connect living individuals, sell them things, and monetize their data. They are not charities, public health organizations, non-profit cemeteries or professional grief counsellors. In life we deliver an enormous amount of personal data into their hands, not realizing that at the point of original sign-up we are also appointing them to manage our data after we die as they see fit, a role for which they would seem to lack appropriate qualifications. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, aghast at what has been wrought with his creation, pleads that we urgently need to decentralize the World Wide Web and regain control of our personal information. The fact that big tech’s ownership of this information – which might include some of our most precious memories – continues unabated after we’re dead seems as powerful a reason as any to agree with him.

Recently Facebook has leavened its paternalism with autonomy, by granting heightened powers to “legacy contacts”. This unshoulders much of their own burden to deal with special requests, which is probably a relief because they have a lot of dead people and untold numbers of mourners to consider. If Facebook’s fortunes persist, they may find themselves hosting nearly 5 billion dead profiles by the end of the century: it certainly makes sense to deliver more responsibility for moderating memorials into the hands of people who actually knew the deceased. But looking after a digital memorial can be a huge undertaking. One grieving woman I interviewed, after a succession of breath-taking losses, found herself the administrator of multiple memorial sites on Facebook – her daughter’s, her husband’s, her son-in-law’s and her best friend’s – and years after the deaths she continued to harbour a powerful sense of obligation to the community of mourners. Holidays and death anniversaries had become so overwhelming for her that, at the time we spoke, she had come off social media to give herself a break – a move that was unquestionably self-protective, but which also, in this strange age, triggered profound feelings of guilt.

-Times Literary Supplement


Add new comment