Before the Internet, before online chat rooms or social media sites, when we died we left behind some old letters, photo albums and perhaps a will leaving our valuables to family and friends. Today it is possible to leave behind much more. Recent articles have examined digital legacies, specifically what happens to our emails, photos, saved documents, downloads (e.g., music, movies, games), social media sites, etc. when we die? If they are part of the World Wide Web are they “property” that can be passed on to family or friends? A Social Times article by Megan O’Neill (2012) stated that:
“On average we will share 415 pieces of content on Facebook each year; we’ll spend an average of about 23 minutes a day on Twitter, tweeting a total of around 15,795 tweets; we’ll check in 563 times on Foursquare, upload 196 hours of video on YouTube, and send countless emails. But have you ever stopped to think about what happens to all that content when you die?”
Sites like legacylocker.com and help individuals create “digital wills” that give family and/or friends access to your digital assets. In addition, should you want to utilize your social media sites to “have the last word” you can use sites like deadsocial.org or ifidie.net. These sites allow you to save and time out messages to post automatically to your social media pages for years after you die. You can record messages and choose “trustees” who can verify your death thereby activating your messages. Thus, you can use social media to continue communicating with your loved ones.
But what if your family and friends want to mourn you? What if they have things they want to say to you? Can social media help them grieve?
On January 1, 2011, 20-year-old Wisconsin native, Allison Kasten, was killed in an auto accident. Within a few hours her twin sister, Becca, posted the news of her death on Allison’s Facebook page. Disbelieving family and friends thought this was a joke, until Allison’s stepmom posted on Facebook verifying the truth to the claim. Within hours Allison’s Facebook page was filled with messages – many people recounting their favorite “Allie” memories. Within days it was impossible to see what Allison’s final Facebook post was (it was a message saying how much she loved living in the United States) as family and friends had completely filled her timeline. Over six years later, people are still filling Allison’s Facebook page with messages. Many members of her family and her friends still “communicate” with Allison via Facebook with messages like “I miss you” and “Happy Easter Allie.”
Allie Kasten is my cousin. I was one of the people who didn’t think Becca’s post could possibly be true. I couldn’t wrap my head around her death and what was going on with her Facebook page. As a mass communication researcher I coped the only way I knew how, by exploring what was happening. I teamed up with colleagues Sara Magee, Ellada Gamreklidze, and Jennifer Kowalewski to examine how and why people were using social media sites like Facebook to grieve. How were they communicating with others about the death? How were they communicating with a global audience about death? How were they communicating with the deceased? What began in 2011 as a look at individual deaths and social networking sites led us to a full exploration of what we are calling social media mourning.
Today our research on a social media mourning model has been published by OMEGA: The Journal of Death and Dying. We welcome your feedback about our model. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.