Post-Mortem Content Stewardship on Social Media

Welcome to the digital afterlife, where our digital identities persist after death and we interact with the data the deceased have left behind.

I just looked at my friends list on Facebook; I have at least three dead friends who I’m not about to “unfriend” just because they’re dead. I’ve even wistfully added them to Facebook Groups, knowing that I’m only interacting with their data.

We maintain relationships with the dead’s digital identities, but until now, there has not been much research into the behavior. Thankfully, researchers at the Identity Lab at Colorado University Boulder are morbidly fascinated with the interplay of death and social networks and want to help us figure out why we act the way we do around the deceased on social media.

From their website: “The Identity Lab is led by Jed Brubaker, an Assistant Professor of Information Science in CU Boulder’s college of Media, Communication, and Information. The lab focuses on studying and designing how identity is designed, represented and experienced in technology.” Brubaker wrote his dissertation on design and how it helps users process grief on Facebook. In 2015, his work was influential in the creation of Facebook Legacy Contact, a feature that allows users to designate someone to manage their account after death. (Maybe you’ve already run into this feature yourself?)

In a report for NOVA Next, Christine Couch explains that the lab is also utilizing post-mortem data to develop several prototype technologies. Examples “include the ‘map of paranoia’—a Google Maps add-on that incorporates death statistics into route calculations, allowing users to evaluate routes according to how statistically dangerous they are—as well as a simulation of an artificial intelligence system that creates product advertisements that incorporate the likenesses of deceased loved ones.” On the advertising front, Brubaker wants us to imagine “an avatar of your deceased grandmother saying that a certain brand of cookie is as good as the ones she used to make.” Now that might be a bit off-putting, to say the least, but if you imagine the avatar walking you through the steps of how to make that signature recipe that reminds you of her, the idea becomes more palatable.

“What it means to interact with the deceased or what it means to interact with their data is something that we don’t have a really good handle on yet, and in part I think that’s because we just haven’t experimented with it enough,” Brubaker says. “What we haven’t yet seen are enough visions of what this post-mortem interaction could be like to find the ones that are actually good for us, the ones that are thoughtful and kind.”

According to Couch, “Brubaker is one of a handful of researchers exploring ways of building human-computer interactions that consider both the living and the dead. ‘Thanatosensitive design,’ as it’s known, includes features and devices created to memorialize the deceased and addresses issues that arise when the living need to access data from someone who’s passed as well as the barrage of privacy and computational challenges that come with making technologies sensitive to the deceased and those they leave behind.”

Couch says, “In other words, the technology a person used when they were living, and the cultural rules around that platform, helped shape how they were remembered when they were no longer around.” Although most people don’t like to think about death, technology can be helpful in the grieving process. Through posts, likes, photos, and more, we are daily creating a legacy loved ones will inevitably access on social media, and it is up to us to shape what that looks like with care.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. How would you like your friends and family to be able to interact with you in the digital afterlife?

2. How do you (or would you) feel about the dead people on your friends list?

3. What other technologies would you like to use to interact with the data of your deceased friends and family?

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