Poking the dead: contemporary means of post-mortem communication

Oct 29, 2015 | BLOG

By: David Eaton

More than 965 million people use the Social Network Site Facebook everyday, to share content and interact with friends. Most of these friends are alive. But some of them are dead.

Companies which manage the digital estates of the deceased, such as their email and social network accounts, estimate that there are more than 30 million Facebook Profiles belonging to deceased users, many of which are still interacted with by survivors on a regular basis. It’s predicted that if Facebook’s rate of growth peaks and stabilises around 2040, then its number of deceased accounts will surpass those of living users around 2065.

Memorialising the deceased online is nothing new: as early as 1995 websites such as ‘World Wide Cemetery’ and the ‘Virtual Memorial Garden’ allowed survivors to create digital memorials including eulogies and photo montages.

What’s different about Facebook is that researchers such as Kasket and Hieftje have discovered that for some survivors, ‘it feels like the dead are listening[1]’. It isn’t just that Facebook is simply one of a number of avenues used to communicate with the deceased, equitable to talking at the grave or in the mind. It’s ‘the only place to leave a message[2]’. If the deceased’s Profile was deleted, respondents have claimed that it would ‘feel like I wouldn’t be able to talk to them properly[3]’, as ‘it’s strange but part of me just feels like they see it somehow[4]’.

Accurate demographic data for Facebook engagement is lacking, but a report compiled by iStrategyLabs using data from Facebook’s Social Advertising platform indicates that in the US, over 55’s are the site’s fastest growing cohort; the number of over 55’s using Facebook has risen more than 80% between 2011 and 2014[5]. As more older people create Facebook profiles to keep in touch with family and re-connect with friends, we might well expect to see an increasing number of cases in which ‘it feels like the dead are listening’ as we poke, like and comment on the profiles of the deceased.

Of course, in 10 years time the dead may live on in different avatars. The Eternime platform, currently in its beta testing phase, ‘collects your thoughts, stories and memories, curates them, and creates an intelligent avatar that looks like you’. This avatar ‘will live forever… and people could interact with it as if they were talking to you’. Another service, Lifenaut, offers a series of personality tests and mines data from social media profiles to create photo realistic avatars of users which live long after their progenitors have passed away.

These developing applications may well be indicative of changing attitudes to death, technology and our notions of immortality. In 2025 survivors may eschew a visit to a grave in favour of donning their oculus rift headsets to meet the deceased for a quick catch-up.

Or perhaps people will long for the time when they could log onto Facebook to poke the dead; the site’s policies toward the profiles of the deceased have varied widely in the past 10 years. After initially deleting all inactive profiles, in 2009 the site introduced the Memorialisation function to allow survivors to remove certain features from the profiles of the deceased. If requested, memorialised profiles inform visitors that the user has died, the profile no longer appears in public searches or public groups and spaces, and it can only be viewed by members of the deceased’s network.

This function has not been universally well received however. Following an involuntary memorialisation in 2012, around 1500 British parents established a campaign group to reinstate the profile of a woman’s deceased daughter back to full functionality. And whilst Facebook launched the ‘Legacy Contact’ feature in February 2015, which allows users to select who will inherit and manage their profiles after their deaths, this option automatically memorialises profiles.

Functionally altering the profiles of the deceased is pragmatic from a marketing perspective, as it allows Facebook to maintain accurate user data. But perhaps it better suits a company whose mission statement is to keep people connected to acknowledge that in the 21st century, some people are ‘liking’ angels instead.

[1] E. Kasket, (2009), ‘The Face(Book) of Death: Posthumous identity and interaction on a social networking site’, http://www.academia.edu/1658734/The_Face_book_of_Death_Posthumous_Communication_on_a_Social_Networking_Site, accessed 28/10/15
[2] J. Hieftje, (2009),The Role of Social Networking as a Medium for Memorialization in Emerging Adults’, (Doctoral Thesis, Indiana University, 2009).
[3] Kasket, (2011), ‘Being Towards Death in the Digital Age’, http://www.academia.edu/1705544/Being-towards-death_in_the_digital_age, accessed 28/10/15
[4] Ibid
[5] Despite this increase however, 13-55 year olds still comprise 84.4% of Facebook’s users in the US.

David Eaton