A few years ago before Facebook was widely available to everyone and still confined to students, MySpace was the king of this burgeoning new world of online social networking. My friends and I were first understanding the idea of what having a version of yourself on the internet that anyone could see at any time really meant, when one of the more social among us died suddenly.
It was a traumatic and tragic way that he died but the ever-present geek in me eventually wondered about his MySpace profile. I checked it out. The comments section was jammed full of condolences and "I miss you"s, the most interesting of which were messages from family members and friends who had lost touch. I knew these commenters weren't that connected to him in real life, and it was powerful to see them reach out in a public forum and proclaim their regret and grief over losing someone not yet clear of their twenties. It must have had some therapeutic value for them, like going to a grave and leaving flowers or some other significant object as a gesture of love. Eventually, his profile disappeared.
More recently, a friend of a friend died under similarly tragic circumstances and the same thing happened. His MySpace profile was bombarded with well wishes and for a while an almost daily reminder from his sister, stating how much she loved and missed him. Being curious and slightly removed from the situation, having never met him, I checked the profile every day to see how things unfolded. Eventually I stopped checking as people posted less and less, their grief apparently dwindling and sealing up. Recently, I went to check out the profile and found nothing there. An empty internet void we're all too familiar with when there are no search results. A huge white space where a friend of a friend used to be. My search "did not match any documents."
Luckily a page had been created solely for the purpose of memorializing him and that page still exists. Being a big part of the local underground stand-up scene, his new profile is loaded with clips of comedians we can assume he enjoyed, an online test showing that of all the superheroes he could be, he is Batman, and a similar string of comments from loved ones and friends wishing him a happy birthday and talking to him as if he were reading it all, which is a bigger discussion for another day that we at AOTB are not qualified to moderate.
A friend told the story in my living room recently of someone she knew who kept a LiveJournal and for one year made suicidal threats and even counted down to his own suicide, except he post-dated every post for one year later and when he was done making the posts, he killed himself. So, for a year after his death, posts from him would show up among his friend's blogrolls and his journal continued to update until the countdown had finished one year after his death. Now aside from being a cold, pre-meditated stunt meant to torture the living, this bit of genius can serve as a good anecdote for what happens when the owner of a blog passes away.
Tim Smith, a PR representative for LiveJournal told us, "when a journal owner passes away, the journal is placed in memorial status" and that this "practice of placing a journal in memorial status has been going on for at least 5 years… Once an account is moved into memorial status, the account will not be deleted or removed." We can only assume that since his posts were still coming up on a regular basis that no one notified the LiveJournal staff and obviously it would be impossible and mildly frightening if the LJ staff took it upon themselves to monitor everyone's blog.
Facebook is the only social networking site that makes mention of such a circumstance. Under the rather foreboding headline of "Termination," the Facebook Terms of Service state that, "When we are notified that a user has died, we will generally, but are not obligated to, keep the user's account active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by us to allow other users to post and view comments." The MySpace and Twitter TOS make no mention of any similar process and they did not get back to us in time for this article, but it can be assumed that they have a similar take.
Which leads me to the big question; As our lives grow progressively into a more online state, doesn't it make sense that our death should live there, too?
For the eternally morbidly curious, you can check out Tributes.com, a new searchable database of obituaries developed by Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor and launched last summer as a continuation of his crusade to help usher newspapers into oblivion. Tributes.com strives to work with funeral homes across the country to create a database of obits that cuts the papers out completely. They've said the obituaries posted to the site will stay up indefinitely and condolences left by the grieving may come down after 5 or 10 years. Of course, being a business model, the site also offers three different "tribute packages" where loved ones can register, login and pay money to upload memories in the form of pictures, songs, and videos, the page of which looks like a web hosting breakdown or a sheet comparing car insurance quotes.
I took a trip around Tributes.com and searched for the obits of lost loved ones. I found it cold, unfamiliar, and opportunistic, like so many funeral homes and cemeteries. So my question is this, if Facebook and MySpace are going to be deleting these profiles from existence, what recourse does the grieving user have? Well, you can create a fake profile with a new login that acts as a memorial for the deceased, but something about that feels weird. It's legally sticky to release the login information to friends and/or family who might desire to login in perpetuity to manage a virtual online gravesite and it seems callous and morbid for Facebook to put up some kind of stamp on the user's profile delineating the living members from the dead. Is it best for them to just let these profiles slowly fade out of our memory and off our cloud servers?
We've known for a long time that death is not an easy process. We've attempted to break down the stages of grieving into 5 easy consecutive stages, we've set up systems of payment for those who survive the deceased, we've even managed to invent a whole set of euphemisms for those who have "passed on." But death is not an easy process, financial boon, or topic of discussion. It's a complicated mess that permeates the living's day-to-day lives. We treat this new online social landscape as a playground where we constantly upload our live's totality in the form of pictures, videos, status updates, and cat macros, but as more of us shuffle off this mortal coil, we're going to lose some of that innocence. We're going to come face to face with death in growing numbers, that inevitable thing that makes us DO before there can be no more DOing.
And you may come face to face with it yourself. That is, unless it gets deleted first.