The Internet has given us a kind of digital afterlife, where our online activities can be preserved and memorialized like fossils in a rock. We talked to an expert about how your friends, family, and complete strangers will use the Internet to remember you long after you’re gone.
One person who’s given this subject considerable thought is Sarah Cashmore, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. I contacted her to learn more about this subject — one that’s affected her quite personally.
io9: Tell us how you came to be interested in digital afterlives.
Sarah Cashmore: I sort of fell into this issue. My personal experience is that back in 2009, a close Twitter friend of mine, Mac Tonnies, passed away very suddenly. Mac was a science fiction writer and prolific blogger who left behind a lot of unique digital content and many friends who loved him. His blog, Posthuman Blues, was a collection of everything that interested him; it was a wonderfully weird curated collection of esoterica he scoured the internet for. After he passed away, there was a growing concern among his friends what would become of his online legacy; for many of us who hadn’t met him in person, his online presence was the only way we knew him, so it was very important to us to preserve it. His legacy consisted not only of his online materials, but also the friendships he had developed.
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One friend, Mark, took it upon himself to back up Mac’s websites. This required him to collaborate with Mac’s parents, who were taking care of Mac’s affairs, because it took some figuring out where his credit card charges were going, and so on. But Mark bought some hosting space and archived everything so we wouldn’t lose it. Everyone appreciated Mark’s incurring that cost, because no one really knew what was going to happen to the site. I still don’t think the policies around blogs is very clear. Anything could happen.
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I, on the other hand, wanted to maintain the community of his friends. After news of his passing spread, there was a period of about a week where Mac’s online Twitter friends found each other through hashtagging his name, and we just introduced ourselves to each other, shared condolences and shared memories. I met dozens of people, each as grief-stricken as I was, many of whom had never met Mac in person but were very devoted to him and devastated by the loss of this friend. I started Macbots as an outlet for these friends I’d met to continue sharing, and hopefully heal through expressing themselves, creatively or otherwise, to a community of Mac’s friends who understood how it felt to lose this unique friend.
Macbots began as a tribute site that I thought might be geared toward his more artistic friends. I just thought that a site for posting fan art might be a fun way for his friends to commemorate such a special guy. But I never really pressed the idea; it was just a suggestion. I didn’t want to take ownership of the blog; I just wanted to set up a collaborative space for Mac’s friends. I added anyone who contacted me as Mac’s friend as an author so they could add to the site as they pleased. And whereas some people did create artistic pieces, there are also a lot of posts that are just messages from us to Mac, and us to each other. A really special day was when Mac’s mom Dana send me sci-fi pictures and short stories Mac had created as a child to post on the site. And it’s amazing, but all this time later, we still have visitors to the site every day.
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There are also some philosophical and metaphysical considerations to be had. What does it mean to have our digital echoes reverberate throughout the Web after we’re dead? And can that be seen as a kind of immortality?
I think the issue of using social media to bereave a friend points to a problem that goes for any cultural institution: as soon as you institutionalize a way of doing something, you open a possibility for responses to become artificial very quickly. For this reason, I don’t think there should be one way of bereaving a friend online. I think the lesson to be learned here is that the internet needs to be open, and that we need to stay free to create our own spaces and new ways of communicating, on our own terms. Without that, I fear we may become inauthentic.
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Another philosophical question this raises is what is the nature of a person’s life? If you see a person’s cultural contributions as a literal extension of him- or herself, as advocates of meme theory do, a website such as Posthuman Blues, or the memories I share with the Macbot community, is as real a part of my friend Mac as his physical body. And if you believe our physical environment actively supports our memories, as proponents of the extended mind philosophy do, then people who are looking to these digital archives and communities may be doing more than just reminiscing — they may be engaging in a kind of socializing we’ve never taken seriously before.