Death and the Social Network

July 2nd, 2010  |  Published in Projects

Research Team: Jed Brubaker and Gillian Hayes

The mass adoption of Social Networking Sites (SNS) includes the growing presence of 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, friends’ use of a user’s profile postmortem to say last goodbyes, share memories, and coordinate funereal arrangements is a well known, if not frequently discussed.

Focusing on death brings to bear three important themes for social networks and the representation of identity for their users: embodiment, representation, and temporality. Embodiment particularly 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.

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