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What happens to your online existence when you die?

It seems a morbid subject to research, but over the past few years Facebook has become a huge part of daily life for many, from reconnecting with old friends, the convenience of instant messaging, prolific photo sharing to even organizing classes and work.

I have always found the common social media formalities to be unnatural, for example filling the profile of whom ever’s birthday it happens to be that day with brisk depersonalised messages, some it seems to just retain their own digital presence. But the strangest occurrence to me is the convention of an online death from the announcement to the impromptu obituary as the news spreads over peoples feeds.

Just as social media birthday etiquette occurs; as a Facebook friend passes away their profile’s timeline is inundated with detached, impersonal posts among the emotional messages from the friends that knew them. The latter is just as odd to me, if the friend is deeply saddened by the subjects passing and wishes to pay their respects,

why is it the ‘norm’ to automatically turn to social media to directly access and publicly type long messages to lost friends?

Does that person then unintentionally ‘become’ their facebook account?

 

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STUDIUM; What the literal image is, the cultural reading, the narrative

PUNCTUM; a memorable point within the image that draws you in, creates interest

(Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida)

I collected each profile photo 'left behind' and cropped them to which I decided was the ‘punctum’, the obvious narrative/studium was mostly removed and they were anonymous. This was an automatic decision to keep my work ethical, there is no way of gaining permission so it seemed morally wrong to show identities, even though these images were found publicly on the internet for anyone to view. Further into the project I utilised internet visual algorithms, creating thumbnail grids out of visually similar and connected images according to image search websites, drowning the personal photographs in internet noise.

 

Imagery used is from a list of Facebook profiles for which the owner is dead, only a few I actually knew of when they were alive. What struck me was that the majority of these deceased stranger’s profiles only identified as not being alive because someone had previously said so before I clicked on the link, to tell the difference between the profile of a person alive or dead without being an ‘online friend’ is near impossible as their online presence is just as apparent. This is also a paradox in itself, can Facebook preserve the pixelated ‘life’ of someone forever, or is the website lifeless and dehumanising enough for us to never have an online existence in the first place, or both?

The Facebook policy for death can be found under ‘report a violation’ and gives you two options; to either remove the Facebook account entirely (whether or not any information is stored internally is not stated) or convert the profile into a memorial page which you cannot log into, just post photos and messages. To complete either of these requests you must first prove yourself as a family member or close friend, and then submit their name, the date they passed away and proof of death. Twitter also requests a death certificate but also asked for optional uploads like obituaries and newspaper clippings describing the death. The internet and having personal online accounts is still a fairly new addition to society and so handling the millions of ‘empty’ accounts left behind as they outlive their creators is still an unfamiliar entity, there’s no obvious process or courtesy. Because of this, submitting death certificates and details of deceased friends to giant global corporations to ‘complete the circle’ allowing their details to be discretely disregarded or memorialised (forever?) feels like crossing a moral boundary, dehumanisation of a very human subject. Plus, where does the information go? If an account is deactivated, it can be re-activated at any time, the information just sitting in a database. Is the information stored in this situation also or used for future research?

Online businesses have been set up to try and manage this predicament, allowing users to pass on digital assets, passwords, messages, photos, videos and images et al to designated heirs and executors. Most of the websites I found allowed these heirs access to your left information when you are confirmed dead by one or several nominated trustees. Another website, ‘Deathswitch’, used a password system. The website periodically prompts the user for a password, and after a few missed password chances then according to their website information ‘the computer deduces you are dead’ to which then your ‘trustees’ are informed.

This work explores these themes and experiments with the genre of social media imagery.

© 2020 by Victoria Rick

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