Paula Kiel, a PhD candidate in the Department of Media and Communications, is researching the ways digital media is interacting with death, leading her to question the future role of media and communication in society.
Paula Kiel’s fascination with how digital media is changing our relationship with death began when she first came across the phenomena of Facebook profiles remaining active after their users had passed away.
On the deceased’s page, condolence messages were left by friends and memories were shared, creating a space for grieving and providing a digital afterlife for the person. Paula said: “Grieving on deceased people’s Facebook pages was a way for the bereaved to continue their relationship. It blurred the boundaries between presence and absence.”
Exploring this field, Paula started to uncover the numerous ways digital media is being incorporated into the experience of death. One of the emergent technologies is a form of digital estate management, a service that manages a person’s digital footprint when they die by removing parts of it after the user’s death.
Paula says: “It may be financial records which a person does not want a business partner to find, or emails that two lovers do not want their spouses to see. Or managing a social media profile, with instructions to delete photographs that they don’t like. The main idea behind these websites is to let users control how and where they want to be present online when they die.”
Other digital services include managing the deceased’s communication to friends and family in the event of their death. Some services focus on what Paula describes as “the final goodbye’, through sending a delayed message following death. Others allow users to remain actively present online, enabling them to send various messages to specified recipients for many years after their passing.
Paula said: “Users are encouraged to think about the important relationships in their lives, and imagine ways in which they would like to remain active in these relationships after they die. This can be done by leaving messages to be sent in the future, offering advice, wishing someone happy birthday or just some inappropriate jokes.”
"These type of messages will typically have triggers; for example, on one of these websites, congratulations could be sent from a parent to their son or daughter when they graduate from university, or a message is sent when a person visits a place that has special meaning to the deceased.” Paula adds.
An additional type of digital afterlife technology Paula is researching is where social media information is harvested to construct a digital personification of the deceased. Echoing a storyline from the sci-fi television drama series ‘Black Mirror’, an interactive, digital avatar is created which can hold conversations, and continues to develop after a person has passed away.
Paula said: “A grandmother might create an online identity for her relatives; they could then contact her to ask for advice, share a memory, or ask for her famous apple pie recipe.”
In the course of her research, Paula is interviewing the technology designers and users to find out how the use of these services is imagined, considered and experienced by the different parties. Paula said: “Some people reported how it made them reconsider their relationships, and come to accept the fact that they will die one day. Others said it had forced them to think about who they would like to communicate with, which people they valued the most, and how they would like to be remembered by them.”
“Some people have found using this technology very difficult, but just as many have found it liberating. One of the designers told me that I have to do it, that it was an amazing, life-affirming experience, which changed his attitude to life.” Paula adds.
As many of these technologies are at an early stage of their life and confined to a small number of early adopters, their wider impact on social relationships is unknown. Paula said: “If these websites become more popular, death could potentially become a very ordinary, everyday thing, much in the way social media is. It is interesting then to think about the implications on contemporary attitudes towards death.”
These websites might also indicate a change in the role of communication technologies within society. Paula said: “This idea or fantasy that advanced technological developments for communicating will enable humanity to overcome the ultimate communication barriers is not new; this phenomenon is part of a long history of associating communication technologies with the afterlife.
"What is interesting in taking this perspective for a media and communication research, is that it could help further our understanding of contemporary relationships between technologies for communication and death. This has implications for the meanings and significance of online communication itself.” Paula adds.