What happens online after you die? exploring the digital graveyard

Life’s ultimate tragedy, death, has existed for almost as long as life itself. Digital media is but a blip when placed upon this timeline; a speck upon an insignificant dot at the end.

There have been so many extinguished lives, and so many consequences left behind by them. From the heart-wrenching sorrow felt by loved ones to dramatic changes in sanitation, the impact of death upon society has always been profound at every level.

An imminent, looming question facing those alive today concerns the footprint we leave behind. In an era in which our lives are in digitally documented, what remains of us once we are gone?

Digital documentation

One glance at your Facebook timeline, WhatsApp conversations or Instagram feed will remind you that even from birth, people’s lives are being documented in more detail, and shared in more places, than ever before in human history.

In years to come, our national governors, military generals and corporate bosses will have every single significant – and insignificant – moment of their lives available online for all to see. Today’s Beiber-loving tweenagers are tomorrow’s societal leaders.

It is practically impossible to leave no trace of your lifetime behind online, especially so if you’re seeking to make a cultural impression with any success. Such is the power of digital activity.

I went to Turkey last weekend. Without my deliberate sharing of any information, there is a scary amount of evidence to be found online about the fact that I did such a thing – not only where I went, but who I went with and what I did there.

So when I die, what happens to all this information?

The traces left behind

Though the likes of Facebook, Twitter and other older social networks, like Bebo and MySpace, have barely been around for a decade, the chances are now that most people are connected with someone online that no longer exists in the physical world.

A difficult decision for relatives is whether to remove these seemingly superficial profiles altogether, or to retain them as a kind of eternal shrine to the deceased.

The former viewpoint is perfectly valid, and a hollow Facebook account can seem a morbid, haunting facsimile of someone that ultimately may have been quite different in real life. Benign statuses about everyday trivia are jarring during a period of mourning, and may not convey the character of the person in a fair, broad or reflective way.

Prying eyes into a life they were not part of are also kept well clear if the family wish to remove a lost relative’s online presence.

Others may suggest the opposite. The footprint we leave behind is indicative of the behaviour we undertake when still alive. The photos we choose to share and the insights we opt to post are very much a part of who we are.

In bygone eras, certainly before the invention of photography, the lasting impact of 99% of people who ever lived is confined to the memories of those who knew them; memories themselves lost as generations move on.

Even those with noteworthy contributions to life leave little more behind than an invention or idea named after their moniker, itself a token of ancestors before them. The essence of who they were is easily forever lost.

A global graveyard

Our digital footprints now offer future generations the chance to peek into a window of who we are as people living today.

Sure, Flickr may close down, and Facebook is likely to undergo hundreds of updates. Devices will change, and networks with them, and the specific policies and protocols for each site will differ.

However, the nature of digital media means there will always be something of us that remains, and we will all be confronted by this sensitive issue sooner rather than later.

A childhood friend of mine, whose mother sadly passed away last week, used her Facebook account to inform everyone she knew that she was no longer alive, in a way that delivered the news far more promptly, affectionately and far-reaching than may have been the case in a pre-digital world.

In another touching tale, a child, who lost his father at six, was able to reconnect with the ghost of his parent via a recorded sequence in an Xbox game.

The list of stories concerning the echoes of the deceased will only grow as digital media evolves rapidly and more of us die, hopefully less rapidly. Indeed, it won’t be long until there are more dead people on social media than there are alive.

In any case, feelings towards digital memorialisation will differ across the globe and between different people, but the discourse surrounding digital life after death will rumble on.