What happens to our digital existence when our physical existence is gone? I don’t mean this as a morbid topic but rather one that is increasingly important to consider and growing more broad all the time. I began thinking about online memorials and quickly found myself falling down the rabbit hole into a huge mess of intertwined ideas. Frozen Facebook profiles. Digital estate planning. Gravestones with embedded media. Online obituary guestbooks. Friends who vanish from virtual worlds and MMORPGs. The dilemma of sorting through digital files that have been left behind.
Of course, these aren’t new topics by any means. It was 1997 when I first received a bulk email from someone I had never met, addressing the people whose names she had found in her husband’s email address book, informing us of the tragic accident which took his life. He had been a college friend of mine but I had never met his wife. The next year I worked briefly for a start-up that wanted to build memorial websites so that families and friends could have a place online to share stories and photos in perpetuity. A couple years later, I had the shock of seeing a name appear in my AIM Buddy List: a friend whose funeral I had attended the week before. His girlfriend had turned on his computer and AIM had launched automatically.
I’d like to think and write about many aspects of this, but I’ll start with memorials in virtual worlds. I’ve come across many of these in Second Life. Some are versions of offline memorials for groups of people who were never part of SL: memorials for victims of the Holocaust, Cold War, 9/11 attacks, etc. Others are general memorials for everyone who has died of a specific cause, from cancer to heart disease to suicide. I’ve seen individuals erect memorials for relatives they’ve lost in the real world, like one clothing designer who made a little garden in her store courtyard to honor her mother. Then there are some, like the image above, that remember the online existence of a person who has died. These aren’t limited to virtual worlds; in the MMORPG I played, when a friend died we convinced the game creators to rename an NPC (non-player character) after his avatar.
We may not know all the personal details about our online friends, but that doesn’t mean that our feelings toward them are insincere. Sometimes that incompleteness can make a death even more poignant: there can be a confusing absence before we find out why our friend hasn’t been around. (I’ll admit that I’ve done nervous web searches when online friends who were sick or in dangerous jobs disappeared for a week or more without warning.) We grieve as honestly as those who knew the offline person, but our opportunity to participate in the rituals of death is not the same. Distance can be a factor, or by the time we find out what happened, the funeral may be long past. So, we create new rituals, new ways of remembering our friend’s life as we knew it, honoring that existence, and finding closure.
How lovely is that? Of course it’s sad, but it’s also a testament to the relationships we build without necessarily exchanging a physical handshake or hug.
Update: I just noticed that io9 had a post this morning on a related topic. It’s a good read. What Should We Do with the Online Undead?