Digital Death Day

Last Thursday was Digital Death Day, marked by a conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The event was a spin-off from the biannual Internet Identity Workshop, which is generally concerned with the technical and commercial aspects of online identity, rather than philosophical issues, and the DDD meeting was explicitly aimed at “Death Care Professionals … Estate Planners … [&} Death Attorneys” which would seem to indicate that the participants were inclined to grapple with practical matters rather than existential themes.

Nevertheless, even consideration of strictly material questions like the heritability of virtual assets and the ownership of online identity cannot help but make one think about the way that social media have influenced the experience of bereavement and grieving in the modern world. News reports of the death of a young person almost invariably mention friends and family paying virtual tribute to the deceased via Facebook or Twitter, and the concept of the social network page as a persistent memorial is well established. There is no doubt that this phenomenon can have a powerful emotional effect, as these personal accounts show.

Is this a healthy development? The persistent nature of an online presence can give mourners a chance to bid their farewells to the dead in their own time, reducing the trauma of a sudden departure. It also maintains the focus on the whole of the life that has been lived, rather than just on the death itself. All this can help give meaning to what might otherwise seem like a senseless tragedy, which in turn may aid the grieving process for those left behind.

This is perhaps not as new as we might think. In many ways it is a return a concept of death that our ancestors might have recognised, a communal experience, rather than a private matter for the immediate relatives of the deceased, after a century in which the end of life had been increasingly hidden away.

Of course it can also be argued that this process trivialises death and loss, that it is impossible to pay respectful tribute to the dead in 140 characters, that death has become just another commodified experience to be vicariously consumed. There is some truth in this – one can hardly deny that one’s reaction to the passing of someone that one has no real connection to will be driven more by one’s own internal dynamics than any genuine feeling for the deceased. (We explored this phenomenon in relation to Second Life in a previous post). On the other hand, expressions of sympathy from complete strangers, whatever their motivation, can be immensely comforting to the bereaved. At the most basic level they are an affirmation of our common humanity, a recognition that we are all bound together by our inevitable mortality, and it is that sense of solidarity that can carry us through our darkest hours.

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