Death Ref John will be at the South-by-Southwest 2016 Interactive conference on Friday, March 11 to discuss digital technology and legacy issues. He’s speaking with a really dynamic group, all of whom represent different angles on the Death and Digital Technology world:
Alethea Lange (@AletheaLange)
Policy Analyst, Center for Democracy & Technology
Megan Yip (@MeganYip)
Lawyer, Law Office of Megan Yip
Vanessa Callison-Burch (@vcb)
Product Manager for Memorialisation, Facebook
And here’s what they will all be discussing:
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ben Franklin’s quote has survived because he was a famous man in his time. But haven’t you said some clever things in your time? Maybe even Tweeted them? Technology has democratized history–no longer are only the lives of the rich and famous carefully preserved, now most of us have exhaustive records of our lives in our emails, chats, social media posts, and digital photos. States across the country are updating their estate laws to reflect this new reality, but the right answers aren’t obvious. Should your emails be passed along? Should your online presence die with you? How do you want to be remembered?
You can send the panel questions by using this hashtag: #techlegacy
It was inevitable, I suppose. At a certain point early 21st-century humans would begin doing things with computer technology that their long lost late 20th-century cousins did roughly twenty years earlier.
And lo, it has come to pass with death and the internet.
The New York Times has a Fashion & Style feature on how the kids are using the world wide web to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc.
Anytime the Grey Lady describes something as fashionable then it’s almost certainly dead. Irony of ironies, given the article’s subject.
Using the internet, the web, computers, digital technology, communication technology writ large to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc. is not new. Indeed, humans have been using the interweb to discuss death since the early days of html and Netscape.
We need to go back in time now, to a long-forgotten-about age when people still said Information Superhighway without irony or smirking. That’s right, we’re headed back to the mid-1990s.
As soon as the ‘web’ became a viable entity, largely because of the browsers Mosaic and then Netscape, individual users began creating websites about death.
It is also important to point out that everything happening in the late 20th-century also built on technology used during the 19th-century (e.g., telegraph communication, photography, rail transport, etc.) but I’ll stick with the 1990’s for now.
In 1996, a television show called the Internet Cafe began a run on American Public Television. The programme was later re-named the Net Cafe and it lasted until 2002. Think of it as the paleo-YouTube.
Two years into the Internet Cafe’s existence, on June 26, 1998 (historical aside: Bill Clinton wouldn’t be impeached until December 19, 1998 but most television footage was about the Starr Report), it aired a programme called Grim Reaper Web Sites.
As the title suggests, the entire show examines how people are using the world wide web to discuss a long list of death topics and issues. My particular favourite is the guy who creates a memorial website for Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.
The moral of our time-traveling tale is this: We humans began using the internet and web as soon as we could to discuss death. Why? Because that’s what we do with all communication technology. The technology will always change but death itself remains predictably guaranteed and discussed.
But don’t take my word for it, you can WATCH this episode of the Internet Cafe because of the always wonderful Internet Archive.
I also embedded the show at the bottom of the page.
The 1990’s live dude.
And if you’re interested in the history (both old and new) of death and technology then check out Death Ref’s Death + Technology page.
I’ll be giving a talk on these death technology issues (and other things) at the upcoming UK Death Salon.
One final point. In another twenty or thirty years I firmly believe that an intrepid reporter for the New York Times will write an article about whatever technology exists at that time (our computer overlords, most likely) and how the kids are using it to discuss death.
I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.
And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.
But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.
My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.
We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.
Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’
Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.
Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.
But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.
Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.
The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.
Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.
What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.
Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:
Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…
Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.
So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.
But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:
The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.
Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:
I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.
USA.gov: Writing a Social Media Will
It’s unfortunate how many people believe that estate planning is only for wealthy people. People at all economic levels benefit from an estate plan. Upon death, an estate plan legally protects and distributes property based on your wishes and the needs of your family and/or survivors with as little tax as possible.
Social Media Executor. This is the individual that the USA.gov’s website recommends you use to manage your Social Media Will. For the foreseeable future, that’s a growth industry job. It’s also not that new. In one way or another, the Death Reference Desk has discussed the nuts and bolts of postmortem social media issues with Facebook, digital assets, and the Death + Technology section. The Economist magazine also recently weighed in on this topic, so it must be serious(!).
What is slightly different with this specific Death Ref post about the postmortem digital word is USA.gov’s involvement. We now have an official American government website making recommendations about creating a Social Media Will. I don’t want to overstate any of these suggestions, since five years from now ‘social media’ may well have morphed into something totally different.
The next big question will be whether or not, and how, postmortem digital assets could be taxable as inheritable wealth. I have no idea how that issue will play out but I expect somehow, somewhere this situation has already arisen.
Facebook Users Can Add Organ Donor Status
Hayley Tsukayama, The Washington Post (May 01, 2012)
Facebook has added a unique feature to its social network: you can now tell the world — or just your family members — that you’re an organ donor.
Facebook in Organ Donation Push
James Gallagher, BBC News (May 01, 2012)
Three people die every day while waiting for a transplant, NHS says. NHS
Blood and Transplant said the partnership was an “exciting new way” to
encourage donation. Around 10000 people in the UK are on the waiting list
for an organ.
A quick post on a story from yesterday’s news that we at the Death Reference Desk expect many people caught. Facebook, and more specifically Mark Zuckerberg, announced that FB users can now use their Facebook accounts to register as Organ Donors. Here is how it works:
Go to your account and click on Life Event
Click on Health & Wellness
Click on Organ Donor and then enter whatever information you want about being a donor.
If you are in the United Kingdom and want to be an organ, tissue, and/or bone donor but are not yet on the NHS Donor Registry then the UK version of FB enables you to sign up.
I’m a registered organ donor in both America (on my Great State of Wisconsin drivers license) and the UK via the donor registry. I am also now an official Facebook organ donor(!) so you know it’s for real.
Two things to say about this move by Facebook. First off, it’s a good idea. The more that people discuss end of life decisions, such as organ donation, before a person is hooked up to a ventilator and unable to communicate is always helpful. Indeed, this new FB Life Event option is being trumpeted as a way for individuals to unequivocally demonstrate their commitment to postmortem organ donation. This is important so that next-of-kin do not block the use of said organs when the time comes for a decision.
Here is my second take. By making this move, Facebook is entering into a world of longer sustainability. For all of FB’s novelty (and sometimes silliness) this organ donation option means that users can now begin managing their end of life planning through Facebook. This is key. Countless other interweb companies have sprung up to manage these end of life issues, especially for deceased FB users, and Death Ref has covered those companies here. Yet Facebook itself hasn’t really ventured into the reality of death, or that its users die.
I fully expect that Facebook central will eventually add a funeral planning option for its account holders. Down the road.
And by attaching a person’s future/inevitable death to a Facebook account Mark Zuckerberg might just create that one internet app that everyone will want in order to plan a funeral.
Thus demonstrating Death Ref’s Rule #1 for any user based technology: Everybody eventually dies.
On the Media: Updating Your Social Media After You Die
WNYC Public Radio (March 23, 2012)
With social media, so much of our interactions with the world now live online, even after we may not be living at all. Brooke talks to James Norris, the founder of the website Deadsocial about prolonging social media relationships after death.
The Death Reference Desk has been tracking most of the various suggested ways to maintain postmortem control over social media accounts, Facebook in particular, and you can read those posts here. You should also check out the Death + the Web and the Death + Technology sections.
For this week’s On the Media show, co-host Brooke Gladstone interviewed James Norris about his solution to the social media death problem, a platform called Deadsocial.
A couple of points.
Gladstone asked the most pressing question, which is this: How long lived is any new media solution to human death issues given how quickly computing technology changes?
Norris offers a couple of logical responses, mostly about how Deadsocial would adapt to any future social media platform and that doing so was only ethical.
I’m still skeptical that any of the various dead user related websites/programs will remain relevant into the future but I could be totally wrong. I say I’m skeptical because I know how much technology has changed when it comes to death, dying, and the dead body. Meg’s brilliant post on 19th Century Anti-Premature Burial Device Patents elegantly demonstrates how social concerns about different kinds of postmortem technological fixes radically shift over time.
In fact, I will suggest that most of the current, various dead user inventions, programs, and products are more or less 21st Century versions of 19th Century anti-premature burial devices. The thinking now isn’t so much that people need tools to prevent them from being buried alive (modern embalming and cremation solved that dilemma), rather now we need tools to make sure that we Humans can still exert some control over how our digital selves are buried.
In 50 years time, I fully expect that all of these social media concerns will have been forgotten. Or replaced with other, more pressing technology issues.
A second point about the interview. The Deadsocial system was described as a signaling program which checks on users and notifies other, predetermined people when a person isn’t responding to automated messages. A handful of other programs already do this, namely, Deathswitch. All of these programs are different in their own ways, so I’m not suggesting that any company is ripping anyone else off. What is more interesting, I think, is that these various companies keep inventing ways to notify next-of-kin or friends or all of the Facebook that someone has died.
This was also one of the telegraph’s key uses, from the start. A long forgotten but extremely important social communication technology.
My point is this — we should continue to have these conversations about what happens to computer information when people die but we should also realize that these conversations are finite.
I actually found another section of the same On the Media episode far more compelling as it regards the dead user conundrum. The interview focused on something called the Archive Team:
Most of us think nothing of putting our lives in the cloud; photos in Flickr, videos on YouTube, most everything on Facebook. But what about when those services abruptly go away, taking all of our collective contributions with them? Well Jason Scott operates on the assumption that everything online will one day disappear. He explains to Bob why he and the Archive Team are dedicated to saving user-generated content for posterity.
At least the Achive Team understands the rapidly increasing ephemerality of web based information. Indeed, the Archive Team’s motto says it all: History is Our Future.
More than likely, we will need future Archive Teams of all kinds that simply try to understand why some early 21st Century humans became so obsessed with preserving their technological, social media selves. It will all seem to peculiar and strange.
Not unlike 19th Century devices to prevent premature burials.
WNYC’s On the Media radio program dedicated this entire week’s show to Facebook and its users. Per usual, it was an excellent set of stories. I was a little surprised, however, that the program didn’t discuss what happens when Facebook users die.
So let me pick-up that storyline.
Let’s roll out some numbers. The current number of Facebook users is somewhere near 845 million. The rough annual mortality rate across the planet is 8.37 deaths per 1000 individuals (this number is gleaned from the CIA World Factbook on global mortality statistics and is far from exact, so we’re dealing in broad approximations). After doing a little math, this means that over 7 million Facebook users die each year. Divide that by 365 days and you’re looking at over 19,000 Facebook users dying every day.
By comparison, 1500 people die every day across England, Scotland and Wales. In America, over 6,000 people die a day. I could go on and on.
I was already thinking this week about death and Facebook since a handful of American states are either drafting legislation to enable next-of-kin access to social media accounts, and/or the laws have already been enacted. The BBC story at the top of the page discusses proposed legislation in Nebraska. You can see short summaries of both proposed and passed legislation here and here.
Facebook anticipated this situation a few years ago and the Death Reference Desk has been covering this situation since day one. You can see of all our posts on Facebook and Death here.
In 2009 (October 26, 2009 at 4:48pm to be exact) Facebook announced that it was now using something called Memorialization Mode for dead account holders. This Facebook blog post, Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook by Max Kelly, explained how Memorialization Mode worked. Here are the key sections from the post:
We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those who are no longer with them, which is why it’s important when someone passes away that their friends or family contact Facebook to request that a profile be memorialized. For instance, just last week, we introduced new types of Suggestions that appear on the right-hand side of the home page and remind people to take actions with friends who need help on Facebook. By memorializing the account of someone who has passed away, people will no longer see that person appear in their Suggestions.
When an account is memorialized, we also set privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. We try to protect the deceased’s privacy by removing sensitive information such as contact information and status updates. Memorializing an account also prevents anyone from logging into it in the future, while still enabling friends and family to leave posts on the profile Wall in remembrance.
Now, I’ve never had to report a deceased person’s account (which is nice) so I don’t have any direct experience with how it works. I also can’t tell if Facebook has modified what happens to dead user accounts since the initial 2009 announcement.
Here’s the rub — at some point Facebook will require an entire department dedicated to User Mortality. At approximately 19,000 deaths a day, the situation can only be left to its own devices for so long.
If for any reason, to prevent false death notifications like this one.
Indeed, what Facebook needs is a Senior Vice President for User Mortality Affairs and the DRD Team is more than happy to take on that job, should FB’s headhunters be tooling around the Death Reference Desk.
But until that job offer arrives, we at Death Ref will continue to track how over 7 million deceased Facebook accounts are turned into ad hoc digital memorials.
Here’s a really interesting radio story by WNYC’s On the Media about what happens to an individual’s image after he or she dies. A Chinese toy manufacturer wants to create a Steve Jobs action figure. Apple successfully blocked a similar product in 2010 but may not be so lucky now that Jobs is deceased–with his “personality rights” with him.
Add these concerns to the long list of postmortem digital media ownership rights. It also turns out that each state across America has different laws for handling these situations. The main interviewee for the story, Jeff Roberts, does a good job explaining how the state-by-state laws work.
Keep an eye on this story. As more and more of everything shifts to a digital format then the very idea of an “owned image” will be challenged.
Indeed, it’s a situation Steve Jobs helped create.
The photo I am referring to is the one taken by Mark Musarella. In March of 2009, Musarella—a then retired police officer and EMT from Staten Island, NY—snapped a photo of the beaten and strangled body of Caroline Wimmer in her apartment and posted it to his Facebook page. While the photo was taken down fairly quickly, the implications—legal, sociological and moral—are still being sorted out to this day.
While Musarella’s motivations for taking the photo are unclear, his instantaneous ability to share it make it profoundly clear the frightening speed at which lives can be changed forever. Posting the photo to Facebook—even for the short time it was up—allowed the perpetrator, even unintentionally—to re-victimize a family still grieving for their murdered daughter.
The New York Times ran a story this past week about the crime and the Wimmer family’s attempt to sue Facebook to get the gruesome picture back or have it destroyed. In Facebook’s vernacular, the photo is considered “intellectual property”, although a Facebook spokesperson now claims that the photo was removed long ago with no other copies remaining on any of its servers.
But I wonder about that. Here’s a 2009 article from PC World about Facebook’s track record with user’s deleted photos and a more recent article via Arstechnica.com revealing a 16 month or more lag time. Facebook says it is “working with” its CDN [content delivery network] partner to “significantly reduce the amount of time that backup copies persist.” This is obviously of little comfort to the Wimmer family and precisely why, I imagine, they are suing.
More and more, society is grappling with issues around death and dying in a technological age. Crissy Chriscitiello, Caroline Wimmer’s sister, was quoted in the NY Times as saying, “Everyone is all about technology. “What about morals?” We here at Death Ref have been posting about the intersection of death and the digital life for a while. Take a look at our “death + technology” or “death + the web” categories to view past posts. This June, the Centre for Death & Society (Bath, U.K.) will host a conference titled “Death & Dying in the Digital Age”—at which our very own Dr. John Troyer will present. It will be an engaging conference—hope you can make it.
The Samaritans, a confidential, emotional support service serving the U.K. and Ireland, launched a partnership with Facebook this past week. Now, any Facebook user who suspects another Facebook user may be suicidal or experiencing other emotional crises, can report it to the Facebook Help Center. Other suicide prevention organizations are also listed via the Help Center including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S., Kirkens SOS in Norway and Befrienders.org serving other countries.
“Through the popularity of Facebook, we are harnessing the power of friendship so people can get help. As a friend you are better placed to know whether someone close to you is struggling to cope or even feeling suicidal.”
The impetus behind the move is the Simone Back case, among others. On Christmas Day of last year, Back, of Brighton, England told her 1,048 Facebook friends “Took all my pills, be dead soon, bye bye everyone.” In the ensuing hours, no one went to Ms. Back’s aid. According to The Telegraph, “Some users of the site even taunted the 42-year-old over her final status update instead of trying to save her, calling her a “liar” and saying the fatal overdose was “her choice”. Some out of town friends implored online that she give them her address and/or phone number, but by the time her body was discovered the next day, it was too late.
BBC News aired a segment showing just how the system works. The mechanism for reporting is a bit cumbersome as Facebook is obviously trying to walk a fine line between having the service be too visible or too discreet. Although, in its test phase, several people reported suicidal concerns to the Help Center even before an official announcement was made. It will be interesting to see if statistics about Help Center usage for this purpose will be shared with the public and whether this will set a precedent for other social networks.
Digital Death Day London
Saturday, October 9th 9am-5pm
Centre for Creative Collaboration
University of London
16 Acton Street
(King’s Cross Station)
WC1X 9NG London
Last May, Meg wrote up a really interesting piece on a Digital Death Day un-conference in California. That post, Digital Death Day is Every Day, is part of Death Ref’s ongoing coverage of all things postmortem and online. See, for example, the Death + the Web section of the website.
Meg, Kim, and I were all disappointed that we missed the Digital Death Day since the organizers outlined a number of topics that the three of us follow:
Death is a part of life and life has (to an extent) become digital.
This un-conference will be primarily concerned with provoking discourse around the social, cultural and practical implications of Death in the Digital World. Thus stimulating a reconsideration of how death, mourning, memories and history are currently being augmented in our technologically mediated society.
The archiving, networking and post mortem engagement of ‘digital remains’ leads us to consider what place digital information has in our lives legally, sentimentally and historically.
But then something oh-so-exciting happened: a second Digital Death Day event was announced and this one will be in London.
Meg, Kim, and I want a strong showing from our UK Death Reference Desk readers. Indeed, I’ll be able to attend this next Digital Death Day since Bath (where I live) is just a hop, skip, and a jump for old smokey.
The trick with all these ongoing discussions about how death has changed due to digital technologies is that we Homo sapiens are still in the middle of the forest on this one.
As Meg once succinctly put it: How long is forever on the internet?
So there you have it.
I look forward to engaging in all these postmortem discussion topics on October 9 and please, please come up and say hello.