Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are frequent targets of criticism for handling personal data in ways that undermine the privacy and dignity of their users. Twitter recently found itself in the unusual position of receiving criticism for an effort to protect the privacy of user data, by announcing plans to initiate a cull of abandoned accounts on December 11 2019 as part of an effort to comply with EU data privacy regulations.
Who would miss accounts that had been disused for ages? Quite a few people, it turned out. It wasn’t because lapsed users thought they might start using their accounts again. The accounts most at stake will never tweet again, because they fell silent when their owners died.
By leaving their thoughts behind on the social network, people had created a presence for themselves that persisted long after death. Twitter suddenly faced objections from people who would visit the preserved thoughts of a departed father, boyfriend or other loved ones.
For a site that promotes itself as the place to go to discover ‘what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about right now’ this came as a surprise. In fact, it highlights one of the significant changes in online culture since use of the Internet became widespread. A decade ago, Friendster was a major social network, but usage declined until the site eventually closed, an event foreshadowed by an article in the satirical publication The Onion, which spoofed Friendster as an archaeological site marking a lost civilisation. Abandoned accounts on a social network aren’t just a liability, they reflect the health of the platform, and can be an undesirable signal that platforms might wish to conceal. It’s very natural for a business to value current and potential customers, and lost customers that might yet be regained, but much less to value those that are deceased. How should a social network value users that can no longer use its product?
As more and more of us have started living significant parts of our lives online, however, an increasing amount of the content on social platforms has been created by people who are no longer alive. Because of this, we can all expect to have ‘digital afterlives’.
The sheer scale is remarkable. Take Facebook as an example, which already has a memorialisation feature for deceased users. Carl Öhman and David Watson project that billions of Facebook users will have passed away before 2100, by which time ‘the dead may well outnumber the living’. Öhman’s research with Luciano Floridi examines a whole digital afterlife industry dealing with online remains:
Firms such as Eterni.me and Replica now offer consumers online chat bots, based on one’s digital footprint, which continue to live on after users die, enabling the bereaved to “stay in touch” with the deceased. This new phenomenon has opened up opportunities for commercial enterprises to monetise the digital afterlife of Internet users. As a consequence the economic interests of these firms are increasingly shaping the presence of the online dead.
In large part this is about how those still living can be helped to feel better and cope with loss—and that’s no small thing. Technology can honour the past as well as building the future. When London’s underground railway upgraded its automatic announcement system, in the process replacing the old ‘Mind the gap’ recording, it emerged that the actor who made it had left behind a widow who still listened for her husband’s voice at her station. Railway staff worked to digitise and restore the recording, securing emotional succour for one woman and over forty thousand likes on Twitter.
Another form of benefit for those still living can come from the rich historical resource which all these online posters have cumulatively created. Öhman and Watson emphasise this aspect, describing the aggregate contributions of social media users as a form of cultural heritage which is of value both to historians and ‘to future generations as part of their record and self-understanding’. They advocate ‘a multi-stakeholder approach’ to the maintenance of this record: a commercial platform like Facebook has an obvious economic interest in the running of its own services, but other interested parties might include ‘states, NGOs, universities, libraries, museums’ and the like. Historic data might someday be handled like historic buildings, as assets that come with special responsibilities for their owners.
To say that preserving data of this sort benefits the living, however, isn’t to say that we should understand the value of their digital artifacts entirely in relation to the interests of living people’s wants and needs. We may care not only about doing good for the living, but also about doing the rightly respectful thing for the departed themselves.
If we believe they are departed, though, to either oblivion or an otherworldly afterlife, then we may be perplexed about how we might be able to treat them well or badly: how they could be, in the philosophical jargon, moral patients. Explanations we might give for moral responsibilities towards sentient beings—explanations involving the capacity to suffer, for example—seem doubtfully applicable towards those who have gone to rest in peace.
The problem isn’t that we can’t conceive of how there could be any kind of moral patient besides a living, thinking, feeling being. Some philosophers do believe there are other kinds of moral patient, and quite possibly you do as well: if you care about ‘the environment’ then you care for something that, though it incorporates various kinds of sentient organism, isn’t reducible to any of them. The problem is that the conceptual toolkit I’d use in asking, say, what could be wrong with wantonly destroying a fossilised ammonite isn’t a toolkit one can simply go ahead and apply to things left behind by human beings. We don’t relate to that long-dead organism as we do to a dead person.
So questions are explored about what could make dead people, as a class, qualify as moral patients. Is it possible to harm the dead? Do practices like writing and honouring wills imply that obligations towards the dead person who is are disguised duties to the living one who was, or does that merely restate the paradox in another form?
Social Media Absence
Twitter was forced to consider dead people as a class among its account-holders, but that’s because of some users’ very specific connections with particular people they’ve lost: with parents and spouses and lovers and friends, people with names and personal histories. Parts of those individual histories linger online. When we remember people through mementos—a portrait, say—our treatment of the objects expresses attitudes towards the people themselves. If you see a social media profile in this way, like a portrait you’d hang in a place of honour, then the point of view from which it’s obsolete clutter in the database is going to be far from what you can personally endorse.
Öhman and Floridi suggest that we should literally regard the digital material people leave behind as a form of human remains—‘not merely regarded as a chattel or an estate, but as something constitutive of one’s personhood’—and should draw on archaeological ethics to identify the principles behind respectful display of them. It’s unclear how far existing archaeological ethics will take us towards working out whether anyone has an obligation to fund the ongoing display, however; the Internet has nothing analogous to reburial.
Some writers on the ethics of heritage and human remains contrast a materialist, empiricist West, which thinks of being dead as being gone, with different societies in which the dead are understood to have an ongoing presence in the life of a community. Piotr Bienkowski, for example, has written that scepticism about connections with people from former times arises from a view of the world that regards the dead ‘as no longer existing or having personhood in any sense’. If that’s how the West truly thinks, though, then perhaps our technological society is developing so that we start to think differently.
It is now common for some of our most significant relationships to take place entirely online. If we encounter people through their online presence while they live to update it, maybe it’s not so strange a notion that something of them remains present while it persists on the servers. We should bear in mind, though, that for many people, their online personae are not authoritative self-portraitures but often impressionistic or playful takes on themselves, sometimes multiple masques that relate only part of their personalities to specific audiences. We should perhaps be careful about these subtleties when memorializing online self-expression, and not take it more seriously in death than the mind behind it did in life. Nevertheless, even an outright parody account can be fondly regarded as part of a community. It leaves a hole in that community when the posting suddenly ceases, and can retain its place of honour in the ‘social graph’ of friend or follower relationships.
In ten years we’ve gone from seeing Friendster’s decline spoofed as an archaeological dig to Öhman and Watson’s serious proposal that Internet hosts are custodians of a form of human cultural heritage. And as stories about bereavement go, Twitter’s experience carries a heartwarming moral: what seemed to be a load of disused data was in fact a memorial to the dead and is actually giving living people reasons to keep coming back to the site.
Twitter was taken aback by the discovery that deceased people can still be part of its community. This is not the only form online remembrance can take—you may even have had a secret memorial sent to you in HTTP headers — but it’s a form that underlines how those content posters who’ve passed on can still have significant social and therefore ethical relationships with living people: relationships that matter to those people in ways that foster a deep commitment to keeping them going.
Digital afterlives are a recent and growing source of questions for industry and policy—and Twitter will still be working out how best to square them with EU privacy rules. These are the early stages of working out how to handle personal grief on the public Internet: who shall bear the costs, and when it’s acceptable for the ‘digital afterlife industry’ to explore the opportunities. Will this lead to the involvement of religious bodies, such as the Vatican, when it comes to the preservation of digital afterlives? For tech companies already under the spotlight, approaching these questions with ethical sensitivity will be part of securing their own survival. For regulators and ethicists, this is an important issue that problematises recent approaches to privacy and data rights.