Death and the Social Network: The Persistence of Digital Identity

The mass adoption of social network sites includes, as a natural consequence, the growing presence of profiles representing individuals who are no longer alive. However, the death of a user does not result in the elimination of his or her account nor the profile’s place inside a network of digital peers. Indeed, the fact that friends use a user’s profile page, post mortem, to say last goodbyes, share memories, and coordinate funereal arrangements is well known, if not frequently discussed.  Death plays an increasingly significant role, then, in the experience of social networking. More broadly, the entwining of online and offline experience highlights the importance of thinking about digital representations as things that might well survive their owners or referents.

Focusing on death highlights three important themes for social networks and the representation of identity for their users:

Embodiment concerns the way that data objects and digital representations “stand for” human bodies. It encapsulates issues of access, issues of ownership, issues of management, issues of presence, issues of personhood, and issues of participatory status, both at the technical level and at the social.

Representation invokes the traditional considerations of online identity, the presentation of self, and the crafting of acceptable personas as well as consideration of the ways in which records are created with specific purposes and representations in mind. Representation relates to embodiment in that it speaks to the relationship that holds between the data object and the human body, but it incorporates too the active, purposive, strategic practices of re-present-ing, that is, of making something present again, with particular ends in mind.

Temporality concerns the notion of “lifecycles” as it has been applied in system development—the circumstances under which digital systems come into being, are put to use, and are taken out of service. The life of a user and the life of that user’s data are frequently not the same, an issue particularly acute when considering the continuation of dead user profiles in SNS.

team : //

Jed Brubaker, Janet Vertesi, Gillian Hayes, Paul Dourish

publish : //

Brubaker, J. R., Dombrowski, L., Gilbert, A., Kusumakaulika, N., and Hayes, G. R. Stewarding a Legacy: Responsibilities and Relationships in the Management of Post-mortem Data. Proc. CHI 2014. Toronto, Canada. April 26 – May 1, 2014. [pdf]

Brubaker, J. R., Hayes, G. R., and Dourish, J. P. (2013). Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a site for the expansion of death and mourning. The Information Society, 29, 3. [pdf] [academia]

Brubaker, J. R., Kivran-Swaine, F., Taber, L., and Hayes, G. R. (2012). Grief-Stricken in a Crowd: The language of bereavement and distress in social media. Proc. ICWSM-12. Dublin, Ireland. June 4-8, 2012. [Best Paper Nomination] [pdf]

Taber, L., Brubaker, J. R., Kivran-Swaine, F., & Hayes, G. R. (2011). Grief-striken in a Crowd: The language of emotional distress in social media. Poster presented at the 2011 Workshop on Ubiquitous Computing Uniting the Californias. San Diego, California. November 11–12, 2011.

Brubaker, J. R. and Hayes, G. R. (2011). “We will never forget you [online]”: An empirical investigation of post-mortem MySpace comments. Proc CSCW 2011. Hangzhou, China. March 19–23, 2011. [Best Paper Nomination] [pdf]

Brubaker, J. R. & Hayes, G. R. (2011). A study of post-mortem social networking. Presented at the 2011 Workshop on Ubiquitous Computing Uniting the Californias. Ensenada, Mexico. March 3–5, 2011.

Brubaker, J. R. & Vertesi, J. (2010). Death and the Social Network. Presented at the CHI 2010 Workshop on HCI at the End of Life: Understanding Death, Dying, and the Digital, Atlanta, GA, USA. [pdf]