Social Networking and the Afterlife

 

The advent of the modern Internet, including Web 2.0 platforms, has truly changed the way the world communicates and interacts with one another. The world of web 2.0, which heavily involves the new immerging social networking sites, has an impact on not only on our everyday lives but post-mortem as well. We can see within our typical week how social media sites make our lives both easier and harder. Easier, in a sense, due to its quickness, efficiency, and globalization; but also harder, as there are new ethical issues that are faced. “Whether you’re a technology immigrant or a native, social networks are likely where you are meeting business contacts and growing your professional relationships. As a result, ethical behavior is just as important–if not more important–online, since our comments can’t be accompanied by facial expressions or tone.”(“Ethics in social media.” Walker)

One major change is deciding what is appropriate to communicate digitally versus traditional face to face. When breaking up with a girlfriend, for example, is Facebook the most appropriate channel? Do we inform friends and family of a loved one’s death on something as cold and ironically antisocial as their Facebook “wall.” “A further SNS phenomenon of relevance here is the

 

persistence and communal memorializing of Facebook profiles after the user’s death; not only does this reinvigorate a number of classical ethical questions about our ethical duties to honor and remember the dead, it also renews questions about whether our moral identities can persist after our embodied identities expire, and whether the dead have ongoing interests in their social presence or reputation (Stokes 2011)(Social Networking and Ethics 2.3).”Within the world of social media, everything we post becomes very public and very permanent, as it is nearly impossible to truly ‘delete’ something well after it has been up. This leads to the dilemma of what happens to a person Internet presence after they have passed away.

The issue is controversial, very modern, and affecting more people each day. It raises dozens of ethical queries and covers many different perspectives. With people on their devices more than ever, we have to ask, who is responsible for these sites and materials when the person dies? This then naturally leads to the question of how much of ourselves do we want to post, as it will be saved for posterity. There could be a good chance of our grandchildren seeing pictures we posted from a weekend from 60 years prior. Do we want everybody to know where we are at all times, what we are doing and how we felt about it? This issue is even more startling when we factor in how long our digital words and actions could last. Do we need to be more conscious about each thing we post or just think in terms of the present?

The permanence definitely has its positive and negative elements. We are able to go back in time and see exactly what we were doing at any point, but so can anyone else. Internet users are just beginning to truly realize the permanence of our online personas. In his Ted Talk, Futurist Juan Enriquez describes one’s online life to be as permanent as a ‘tattoo.’ “What if Andy Warhol had it wrong, and instead of being famous for 15 minutes, we’re only anonymous for that long?” says Enriquez. We have lost all anonymity in this world as our virtual life is public to the whole globe, and never actually dies, like a human being. Our statements and photos on the web are akin to tattoos on one’s body; they tell a story and give insight into a person’s character.

New media raises even more sociological and ethical dilemmas in death than in life. When a SNS user dies, whether expected or not, what should happen to their profile? It is anyone ones right aside from the deceased to determine what happens to the profile, or who can even write on it. Several different sites have a policy in place for such an event, like Facebook, but most have not adopted this idea. Facebook attempts to make the person profile a sort of digital ‘gravesite’ for people to pay their respects. Memorializing profiles occur now each day and involves: the deceased user no longer showing up in the “Suggestions” box on the right-hand side of the homepage;the privacy setting is altered so that only confirmed friends can view the profile and search for it; contact information and status updates are removed; no one is able to log into the account in the future (Facebook.com). Digital eulogies are professed, stories shared and lives are linked with memorial pages

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such as this. But does this ‘digital gravesite’ trivialize one’s death by making light of a heavy topic and making a private matter one open to the public? Does someone then have the right to take down a SNS profile after death without prior consent; a sort of digital ‘euthanasia’.

Users have adapted to a society where everything is posted to an immense virtual diary that can be shared with the world instantly, and we have used it to its fullest. People have online personas that are larger than their real-life persona. They have created a network so large we lose track of who many of these ‘friends’ are. The pervasiveness of platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and facebook leaves the whole globe asking similar ethical questions like these. The Internet has almost immortalized us, we live on through our profile. If someone dies and the profile is still being maintained, can we truly distinguish if they are actually dead or alive? Web data survives longer then any of us will. The ethical dilemma now becomes who is allowed to alter/delete it. We’ll begin to see a world where individuals will put their virtual desires for the afterlife in their wills.

The typical person today is entrenched in their social media and networking devices than ever before. The more information you post the larger your Internet identity grows and more will be known about you in death. People have grown to accept their Internet identity as an intrinsic part of themselves. The sociological idea of the ‘self ‘ states that we view ourselves in both objective and subjective terms. (Ghosts in the Machine: Do The Dead Live On In Facebook?) This idea has been translated into digital terms often referred to as Internet persona/identity.

“Social identity internet persona is a

that an Internet user establishes in

online communities and websites. It can also be considered as an actively

constructed presentation of oneself. Although some people prefer to use

their real names online, some Internet users prefer to be anonymous,

identifying themselves by means of pseudonyms, which reveal varying

amounts of

personally identifiable information

. An online identity may even

be determined by a user’s relationship to a certain social group they are a

part of online. Some can even be deceptive about their identity

(Wikipedia.org).

An online identity in this day and age has no end, it goes on far past its living entity creating a legacy all its own. We won’t remember the real-life memories, but rather, whatever was saved and posted to Facebook. This is why the question of who can alter these profiles is so important; they have the power to control someone’s legacy. We have the ability to almost make a person immortal in a way, in that, if we keep the online identity alive that person never really dies. (Ghosts in the Machine: Do The Dead Live On In Facebook?) This can cause a lot of problems for the grieving process a loss engenders.

Some of the younger generations of Americans know nothing but a world of instantaneous information and connections that define the world of social media. They know only of a society that posts its meal on Instagram before eating it and sharing photos that nobody should ever see. That being said, this is not just a fad that will go with the times and trends. The idea of social networking is limitless and unstoppable now, it may have different names and different platforms, but this virtual communication will always be here. Ethical guidelines must then be determined by a consensus of Internet users. We have real life social norms that majorities of people subscribe to and this must begin to occur within our digital landscape. When each person in a community has a different set of norms, social cohesion is lost and civility is dormant. The issue of death is beginning to affect more and more users. There will soon be more dead people on Facebook then living ones. (As of 2012, 30 million people who maintained Facebook accounts have died, according to a report by The Huffington Post. Some studies approximate that nearly 3 million users have died in 2012 alone; 580,000 in the U.S (Huff Post 2012)). Actual steps are being taken to establish norms for what happens to a virtual profile when a real-life death has occurred. Some instances according to the Facebook.com policy page includes doing nothing to the profile, report the death and make the page a memorial site, deactivate the account, or extract the account password through legal means (otherwise is against Facebook policy). Facebook is very progressive on this issue, establishing a memorial page for the deceased and a way to allow for less “reconnecting” on the part of the deceased as to not insult anyone (http://mashable.com/2013/13/facebook- after-death). The memorial page allows for a gravesite that is constantly open to the public; it becomes a digital obituary where everyone is a eulogizer. Death is a very dark, private matter, so making it this public has some users very worried about their online legacy, post-mortem. It is, after all, what most acquaintances will remember about you. Should the living be the digital voice for the dead when they have passed? Who has this right and who doesn’t? We can’t bury a Facebook profile like we bury a body; it will be there forever, even if we think it is gone.

When we hear of any news in today’s instantaneous world it is immediately going viral within seconds and everyone voices his or her opinion on it. Whether it is a public event with celebrities or a private matter that involves only a small network; we are all reacting to it unanimously and immediately. We have seen a recent immerging trend when a death occurs. An example of this would be any famous celebrity death in the late 2000s. Fans and everyone else jumps onto their nearest platform to react and learn. Individual are even beginning to find that the crowdsourcing on these SNS has actually become a quicker and sometimes, more accurate, may of disseminating and internalizing current happenings. While this seemingly would make social networking online more attractive, it has some users wary of receiving news like that about a loved one via Facebook/Twitter. What was once a very private closed matter between family and friends now involves a lot more individuals through massive online presences. Do we really want to hear such news through this medium? Grief in the age of Web 2.0 starts and ends with digital tears. Rarely are we talking face-to-face anymore and this means even more sensitive topics such as death are being discussed virtually.

 

We should we honor the dead, not trivialize their death by posting it on a format that houses videos of cute cats and pictures at the local bar. While different people have different opinions of what is appropriate for this new medium, companies are taking measures to ensure its done with the same decorum as real-world afterlife planning. As previously discussed throughout, Facebook is such a company that has a plan set up for the “Memorialization allows friends and family to post remembrances and honor a deceased user’s memory, while protecting the account and respecting the privacy of the deceased,” says Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes “Also, we do honor requests from close family members to deactivate the account, which removes the profile and associated information from the site.” (Facebook.com)

Many different ethical perspectives come to play with an issue this complicated and modern. A Utilitarian would approach the issue of who can control a deceased user’s SNS profiles by compiling a list of pros and cons (Digital Media Ethics Pg.205). In terms of deactivating versus memorializing, how would a consequentialist decide what is best? An initial positive for memorization would be the allowance of a digital gravesite open to loved ones at all times for. We are able to remember the dead a little more strongly when we have full access to the photo albums and diaries; information that wasn’t public knowledge to the deceased friend’s families some 30 years prior.“While some users may find the online profiles of dead people disturbing, anecdotal evidence suggests that memorialized profiles can be helpful for those in grief, by enriching their engagement with their memories of the deceased and with others who knew them.

A deceased loved one’s online presence becomes a repository of memories such as one might otherwise find in diaries, photos or letters” (Faure, 2009). A positive in deactivating is that the dead can die on their own terms without a third party altering, interfering or meddling in their private social networking site profile. The online persona should die such as the real-life persona has done, with people mourning in more traditional ways. Our online identities are not new in any way, but just an extension of ourselves, so should the dead dwell among the living, post-mortem, in this virtual world (Ghosts in the Machine: Do The Dead Live On In Facebook?) We have many different ways to approach a death on a social networking site. However, only when we come to an agreement on the implicit norms in such a situation will we have true cohesion in the issue. Virtual media has the power to immortalize ourselves in history; every aspect of our lives is carefully recorded and stored for the world and later generations to see, in a way, we have all become minor celebrities.

 

 

Work Cited:

Vallor, Shannon, “Social Networking and Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/ethics-social- networking/>.

Stokes, P., 2011, “Ghosts in the Machine: Do the Dead Live on in Facebook?” Philosophy of Technology, DOI 10.1007/s13347-011-0050-7 [Published online October 2011, print edition forthcoming].

http://mashable.com/2013/02/13/facebook-after-death/

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