Saturday, May 22, 2010

Death Comes to the Social Network

BBC Radio 4 producer Peregrine Andrews has a fascinating piece on the BBC News Web site entitled "Virtual life after death." It covers a variety of topics, including questions of what constitutes property in virtual worlds and whether or not the disposition of that property can be addressed in a last will and testament. It also observes that just about all social networks and virtual worlds are products of the very young (college age), who have given little thought to the realities of death in the physical world. This was certainly the situation behind the creation of Facebook, which makes the following case study particularly interesting:

When 21-year-old Bath University student "KJ" fell into the river Avon and drowned in 2009, his Facebook page remained. As news of the death spread, rest-in-peace messages started to appear on his wall.

One of KJ's closest friends had heard of Facebook's "Memorialisation" feature, which allows existing friends continued access but blocks new ones and removes information such as contact details.

He wrote to Facebook with proof of death and asked for this to be done.

Friends now continue to write on the wall, even a year after the death.

Facebook's European Director of Public Policy, Richard Allan describes this as "a new form of mourning".

Doctor Elaine Kasket, a counselling psychologist, has found that a surprising number of messages are written to the deceased as if they are still present and "logging on from some internet cafe in heaven".

"It's perhaps the best example so far of continuing bonds after death," she says.

There is perhaps a better sense of the living person on their remaining Facebook or MySpace page than anywhere else.

It has been suggested that the existence of this online presence after people die, plus the accessibility of online memorials, could draw out the grieving process.

But this may not be a bad thing, says Mark Dunn, a psychotherapist. He believes most of us in the developed world do not grieve for long enough and that the internet "may allow us to learn the mechanics of grieving again."

I think Dunn may be on to something. For all the ways in which cyberspace provides ways to retreat from reality, this may be a case where it addresses the harshest reality of all, even if it is doing so through an unintended consequence.

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