At 10:56 pm on April 18, 2019, investigative journalist Lyra McKee tweeted a picture of Derry, Northern Ireland in a moment of unrest between police and the New IRA. The photo didn’t show much, but one can see flames and smoke in the distance. McKee wrote: “Derry tonight. Absolute madness.” Soon after, McKee, who was standing next to police, was shot in the head when a gunman opened fire in their direction.
McKee was mourned, and much of that grieving played out on social media. Her Twitter account has since been locked, but it remains. Likewise, you can still visit photojournalist Tim Hetherington’s account, more than eight years after his death in Libya. In both cases, the public was given an insight into these journalists’ situations moments before they were killed, and those tweets live on as strange and morbid memorials of their work. They had dangerous lives, and documented events around them until the end.
More broadly, there is something unsettling about how our social media profiles continue after we die. This can happen under the care of a loved one — a prominent example being film critic Roger Ebert’s wife Chaz keeping his Twitter going years after his death. But more often, these accounts are left completely dormant. McKee and Hetherington are extreme examples of this, with their deaths covered in the news and their social media presences key to their work. But we all must confront this reality. Our online selves will outlive us, and in many cases, we will cease having control over them.
I had a friend who died of cancer in high school. Every year on his birthday, his Facebook profile continues to serve as a memorial. Friends and relatives check in with him, update him on their lives, and wish him a happy birthday. It acts as a sort of living document of his spirit. I understand that this brings them comfort, but to me, it feels like an indication that we are more ready for the singularity than we might otherwise let on.
It seems humanity has an innate desire to maintain some kind of contact with the dead. From spiritualistic seances to the recent creation of chatbots that cull a deceased’s personal data to allow you to converse with them, we yearn to connect with those we’ve lost. It’s easier than ever now because the dead already exist within this technology. Some experts have even suggested that this makes it more difficult for people to properly move on. Not only is the grieving process taking place online for many of us, but there are different versions of us all across our online selves that offer new windows into who we are. It’s like a scavenger hunt for anyone interested in discovering the totality of someone’s online existence. And we get reminders about this frequently, although attempts are being made to curb it. For example, Facebook announced that it will use artificial intelligence to keep from recommending that you invite a deceased person to an event.
We also have to think about what companies like Facebook and Twitter decide to do with all that leftover data (which they own anyway). You can archive a dead person’s account, but that data lives on, and Facebook gets to decide if/when to delete some or all of it, and whether to use that data for who knows what. (Some services, like Google, have the option to have all your data deleted after a certain period of inactivity, and you can now set up your account to delete all your data every three months.) That awareness in turn means we may begin to curate what we post more so than we already do, consciously thinking about our digital legacy, which version(s) of ourselves we want to remain easily visible once we’re gone.
A person is unknowable, but these digital documents are concrete records of things we said, did, and believed, and that feels knowable. If those we lose remain present wherever we go online, we may have trouble moving on and letting go. Even as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other tech companies continue to address these concerns with new policies and features, it’s little comfort when grief is so complicated and unpredictable as it is. There is so much temptation within these digital tombs, peeks at people we thought we knew. Did you know they had a YouTube page with cooking tutorials? Or what about this SoundCloud account with a silly rap from 2012? Did they want to be a chef? A rapper? What did this vague tweet mean? We’ll never know for sure. But there’s so much left to learn.