Earlier this week, a friend of mine was pondering how a number of his friends on social media have died, and what the etiquette might be regarding his online links with them. "It feels wrong to unfriend someone just because they died," he said, "but it also seems strange not to." He came up with no hard and fast answers, but nor did any of us listening, quite possibly because no answers exist.
When big social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram launched their businesses on the promise of connecting people, the subject of grief would have been the last thing on their minds. But we don't live forever, and as millions of online profiles go silent every year, more of us are being forced to confront uncomfortable questions relating to death, including the bequest of our digital assets and the ghostly online presence of those who are no longer with us.
Changes from Facebook
In the past few days, Facebook has announced adjustments to the way it handles profiles of the deceased, following a number of complaints about such profiles popping up in insensitive contexts, for example suggesting you invite them to a party. The company pledged to use artificial intelligence (AI) to minimise such occurrences. It also vowed to introduce a new section (called "Tributes") on profiles of the deceased for people who want to post memories, and to allow a nominated "Legacy Contact" to act as a profile moderator. But can these small technological adjustments hope to address our individual feelings about mortality?
Psychologist and author Dr Elaine Kasket has explored this tension between social media and death in her new book, All The Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. "One surprise that came to me during the writing of it was how the control of our personal information by the big technology companies doesn't diminish when we're dead," she says. "If anything, it increases because we can no longer say anything about it! They're stewarding the data of our dead loved ones as they see fit, and in a way that's most economically favourable to them."
Any online service that ends up becoming a library of personal memories knows that it can engage us (and, indeed, make money from us) by presenting us with our past and asking us to reflect on it. But when those reminders involve someone who has died, that's not a superficial nudge, it's a reminder of mortality. And, given the complexity of our feelings on that subject, there's no guarantee that such memories will be welcome. This was vividly illustrated at the end of 2014, when programmer and author Eric Meyer wrote of his distress when a Facebook-generated "Year In Review" slide show presented him with images of his recently deceased daughter. But Kasket points out the difficulty of legislating for that distress. "For example, Facebook made a decision to use AI to stop friends and family from seeing birthday reminders of dead people, but one of the women I interviewed for the book found the stopping of those reminders for her daughter incredibly painful," she says.
Kasket believes that it's impossible for social media companies to determine where the pain points are and somehow fix them, regardless of how much research they do. "Everybody has different sorts of grief," she says. "And as you can't decide what's going to hurt and what's not going to hurt, the companies in control of the data will continue to make impositions."
A digital afterlife
It's not just social media companies that can impose. The deceased themselves can, too. An entire "digital afterlife" industry has grown up around the bequest of our online profiles and how we might wish to be remembered. Such stipulations can range from something as simple as providing loved ones with access to your passwords, to active memorialisations that could even take the form of a virtual reality avatar. While grief is traditionally something we sit with and slowly work through, that process can be pulled and pushed from beyond the grave. "Because data is a persistent thing, the influence of the dead is more persistent," says Kasket. "And that can be exacerbated by developers having ideas because they seem like fun."
Kasket gives the example of, say, a service allowing messages from the deceased – "Wish I was still with you" – to be triggered on someone's phone on a certain date, or when they visit a particular location. "People have all sorts of motivations about wanting to be remembered a particular way and some of those are quite narcissistic," she says.
Narcissism or not, it certainly represents an attempt by us to exercise control over a situation where we'd normally have none, on account of having died. But would people be happy to allow a multinational organisation with two billion users to guess, as the old saying goes, what they would have wanted? In 2015, the case of Hollie Gazzard, a British woman murdered by her boyfriend, received media attention when Gazzard's parents requested the removal of Facebook photos of her posing with the man who killed her, and came up against resistance. "Facebook's response was that if they allowed selective editing of her profile, then that would not be consistent with Hollie's expectation of privacy – at which point you just feel like the world's gone mad," says Kasket.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg's ambition to "connect the world" was never balanced by a realisation that the more connected we are to people, the more affected we are by their death. As that realisation dawns, a mass of ethical and legal issues are emerging. "The laws that govern what you can and can't pass on after death are some of the most variable laws worldwide," says Kasket. "So even if you do write a digital will, or tick a check box [to indicate your wishes] it may not be legally enforceable. Existing principles and concepts of the law just don't work when you're in such a rapid technological and conceptual change."
That conceptual change – the relationship between the living and the dead – is a profound one, and philosophical questions of this kind can make the inherent weaknesses and flaws of technology all too apparent.