Our mourning rituals are being adapted to — and evolving because of — our strangely persistent online personas. In this interview, a philosopher tries to make sense of death on the Internet.
Think of how rich and deeply personal your online persona has become. Now think of what will happen to it when you die.
Until very recently, this question used to feel unusual or irrelevant for all but a tiny, ultrawired slice of the population. In a New York Times Magazine feature about online death last year, Rob Walker noted, “For most of us, the fate of tweets and status updates and the like may seem trivial.” But in the 15 months between then and now, the question of online death has become inescapable: thousands of Facebook users die each day. Facebook’s new Timeline begins with one’s birth. There is only one logical way for it to end.
Already, the service allows grieving loved ones to “memorialize” user profiles. These “In Memory Of” profiles have become a new mourning space, where memorial services can be organized, condolences can be collected, and, more interestingly, where a distinctive version of a person can be experienced and remembered. People can and do leave wall posts on the profiles of the dead. In this sense, a part of a person lives on online.
But what does that really mean? Philosophers have long struggled with similar questions about identity. They are, in some sense, uniquely disposed to answer these tricky questions about what becomes of the online dead. Some are beginning to try. Patrick Stokes, an Australian philosopher from Deakin University, recently published a paper called “Ghosts in the Machine: Do the Dead Live On In Facebook?” that addresses many of the issues raised by the survival of the dead online. What follows is my conversation with Stokes about the slippery nature of identity and the peculiar ways that we live and die online.
This is a strange and fascinating moment as we develop new rituals for the dead’s social media profiles. We are drawing on established traditions, but also developing new ones that take advantage of the technological affordances of the services we use. Facebook’s memorial profiles are not in an “online graveyard or cemetery,” Stokes says, “Instead we just have these dead people among us.”
You open your paper by noting that there is this increasing intersection of online life and offline death. What are some of the more striking examples of that phenomenon?
Stokes: Oh there are plenty of them. Think of when somebody famous dies and then there’s this kind of new reaction, where everyone immediately takes to Twitter and has to post some kind of comment on it. There’s this interesting kind of ritual that’s developed around that, around people saying certain kinds of things about people when they die.
Another example of this intersection—there have been a number of people who have been terminally ill, and who have blogged about their experience with a particular disease, and about their decline, and then had a post deliberately set up to appear after they’ve died. In some sense, these people are kind of dying online, in the blog format. There are also frequent cases, and you used to see this on LiveJournal all the time, of people who would start to post about how they’d contracted some horrible disease, and then over several months they would post about all of the tragic things that were happening to them, and because there is a community built around these platforms you’d get people giving them sympathy and tips and things like that. And then suddenly it would go quiet, and a few days later a different person would post from the account and say “I’m so and so’s brother or husband or girlfriend; I’m really sorry to tell you that they lost their battle with the disease last week.” And then you’d have this huge outpouring of grief and sorrow, but unfortunately what was happening in a lot of these cases was that someone making the whole thing up—they were performing this kind of fake death online out of some psychological need for sympathy or validation. A lot of people were genuinely hurt by that; they were investing real emotions in these people and it turns out the whole thing was actually a complete sham.
More disturbingly there’s been instances of people committing suicides on webcams and things like that, with people either not intervening or not intervening fast enough or even encouraging them. There’s a strange sort of thing with the internet—on the one hand it’s very immediate, you can see people’s faces across enormous distances, you can interact directly with them as though they were right in front of you, and yet you can also take refuge in the fact that they’re not actually directly in front of you, and that creates a kind of distance that allows people to be much more callous than they otherwise would be.
How is it that you see the dead persisting on Facebook and services like it?
Stokes: It’s interesting, my impetus for thinking about this actually came from Facebook. Facebook has that panel on the side that suggests people that you might know, and in the list of suggestions that it gives me, there are at least two individuals who are no longer with us—Facebook knows that they’re dead, so it’s made this little notation that says “in memory of,” and it’s turned them into memorial pages. And I started thinking that it’s kind of weird that here is my list of potential friends, of people I already know, and some of them are already dead. What does that mean, what does that tell us about the persistence of people after death? I started thinking about the fact that there’s this split between the self that you experience right now, and the sort of extended physical and social being that you are otherwise.
The Australian philosopher Mark Johnson talks about this a lot, and what he says is that when you fear death, what you fear is not the extinction of this extended physical and social being, but rather you fear that the sense of self that you experience right now is going to be extinguished. And that’s a split that I’m really interested in—the split between our projected first personal outlook on life and our sense of ourselves as a being that extends across time. Looking at these Facebook pages of dead people, what struck me was the way that people continue to interact with them, and that’s because Facebook is one of the main technologies that we use to communicate our identity. You go to someone’s Facebook page and it says “here I am” and “this is what I like” and “here’s a bunch of photos of me” and “here’s a bunch of interactions between me and my friends that you can see on my wall.” When that person dies all of that stuff is still left there and though the profile has become in some sense unresponsive, it’s still existent and people continue to interact with it. The social identity of this person continues.
How do these Facebook profiles help the bereaved?
Stokes: There evidence that they really do help them. In the paper I quote the sister of an Australian soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan as saying “it’s almost like it’s brought him back to life a little bit, you can hear his voice.” And that is something that is useful for people, it can, to some extent, preserve something of the distinctive phenomenal presence of that person—the way they say things, what they looked like, the way they tended to communicate with people. Insofar as it preserves that, I think it probably does help bereaved people, in the same sort of way as reading old letters and things like that helps grieving people.
One of the things that we do when somebody dies is we immediately start telling stories about how they were, we immediately start swapping anecdotes about things they did and things they said, and part of what we’re doing there I think is trying to preserve the distinctive presence of that person. We’re trying to preserve what made them lovable; that’s part of how we keep the dead alive on a moral level, and I think to that extent things like online profiles can be a very useful memory aid for bereaved people. Not a memory aid in the sense that they’re in danger of forgetting the person, but a memory aid in the sense of something you can look at that will give you a rich, Proustian rush of memory, and will bring that person back to you as the distinctive person that they were.
You say that the dead live on online as objects of duty—what do you mean by that?
Stokes: After I put the paper together I came across the work of a psychologist in London named Elaine Kasket, and she talks a lot about how on these online memorials people tend to talk to the deceased person in a kind of personal way, and often in a way that implies that the person can hear them. I thought that was really interesting. On one level, our online identity captured a huge chunk of our social and relational identity and preserved it, and that it continues to exist in some way. That’s really important because I think that it captures the way we really have continuing moral duties to dead people even though they don’t exist anymore; they exist as objects of duty. That’s something Kierkegaard talks about, the fact that we have these duties to dead people, like the duty to remember them, or the duty not to slander them, and so forth. We live with this very profound ontological ambiguity with dead people: they both absolutely don’t exist anymore, and yet they exist as these people that we have to love and care about.
But persisting as an object of moral duty isn’t persisting as a self. If I said to you “Would you like to live on inside your Facebook profile?” you’d almost certainly say “No, that doesn’t count as any sort of survival that I’d wish for.” Whatever survival you achieve through your online presence is a very thin form of survival; it’s still some kind of survival, and it’s enough to build up a kind of community around it, and enough to serve as a focus of mourning attention, but it’s nowhere near as rich as somebody’s active living presence in the world. It’s a radically diminished form of survival. And so there is this tension that comes up between the self that is this physical and social identity that exists through time and even after death, although in a diminished form, and your sense of the self as being who you are right now, because that self cannot survive death, unless posthumous existence turns out to be correct. Facebook lets you survive for everyone else, but you can’t survive for yourself, which is disheartening in a way. It goes back to that old quote from Woody Allen: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen, I want to live on in my apartment. I don’t want to achieve immortality through my writings, I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”
And that’s sort of the gut punch of your paper.
Stokes: It is, and it’s sort of depressing, but then again working on the philosophy of death usually is. But there are interesting things afoot. In the paper I talk about this website called Virtual Eternity, where you can upload a photo of yourself, and fill in a bit of a script, and then the website creates an avatar of you that, with the use of artificial intelligence, can answer questions as if it were you—based on the short script you’ve supplied. The idea is that years from now your descendants, or whoever, can go online and have a kind of chat with you through this avatar. The technology isn’t very advanced now, but you can imagine one day that it might be, and again, that’s great for everyone else, because it does give you a kind of persistence, but it doesn’t help you any because the person you experience yourself as being right now can’t be inside that avatar.