The way it was, was: someone you know died, you read the obituary, you went to the funeral, you visited the grave. Maybe you signed a guestbook at the funeral home.
The way it is, is: you do all that, then you post to the deceased person’s social media page, continuing to interact with photographs, memorials and memories.
But what does it mean for the bereaved to be able to engage with a deceased person’s social media profile? Recent research has found that young internet users continue to visit and post to their dead peers’ sites, maintaining a social attachment with the deceased.
These interactions are not unexpected: they echo established social media conventions for connecting and sharing.
But socially networking with the dead carries wider implications. By engaging with the dead on social media we no longer sequester the dead in spaces away from the living. Instead, the dead are integrated into people’s ongoing social relationships.
While some specific memorial sites or services are set for private use by friends and family, others spaces (in particular, public social networking profiles) are not and can be publicly viewed and contributed to by strangers.
The deceased’s online presence therefore becomes distributed. With a large public of family, friends and strangers able to contribute to ongoing memory-making for the deceased, this can potentially generate conflict and require some level of posthumous profile curation.
In addition to these social engagements with the dead, research is considering the uncertain status of the dead online. This work not only explores how the dead are remembered, represented or related to through social media, but also how they persist and continue to participate as social actors within social media platforms.
Things are certainly changing. Scholars now suggest that because death does not automatically close a person’s social media profiles, that person, though dead, is more of an “extreme user”, rather than a non-user or former user.