This past winter, my grandmother was diagnosed with the cancer that led to her death the following spring. A devoted mother, she and her 14 children together grappled with many difficult spiritual and medical decisions throughout her illness. One evening, I witnessed firsthand the incredible unity and strength that comes about in the toughest of life’s challenges, and the capacity for technology to extend our possibilities for collectively coping with them. Ten of my aunts and uncles took part in a conference call to discuss plans and options: my mother, a nurse, gave medical advice; my uncle Joe, manager of a medicinal supply company, arranged the delivery of a special bed; my aunt Mary, who works for an insurance company, discussed insurance options; my uncle Jack, a devout Christian, had been researching spiritual healing centers; my grandmother herself contributed to the conversation with words of love, faith, and strength. However, it became apparent to me that some voices were not being heard, and my father later commented on the high expense of conference calls. Fueled by a desire to help, I realized that I could tap into my specific area of expertise, online social media. In a matter of hours, I set up a public wiki and encouraged my family members to write in the communal blog, help in the creation of an extensive address book, maintain an active “To Do” list, and coordinate visits on a digital calendar.
The wiki was quickly adopted by a substantial majority of my family, including the many out-of-town grandchildren. It became a source of ongoing updates about my grandmother’s condition, and the calendar proved particularly useful for organizing a continuous stream of visits and appointments. When she passed away this past spring, my family continued to regularly update the blog with tales of their daily struggles, fond memories of the past, inspirational quotes and Biblical passages. They also posted photographs and videos. The site became a living memorial in some ways. Fundamentally, however, the wiki remained a tool for ongoing communication pertaining mostly to present circumstances. For the past six months, it has been the source of daily updates about my grandfather and his care, and of gossip that fuels the complex rifts and duels that define the relationships between my dad’s brothers and sisters, my grandmother’s presence relegated to archived posts and photo albums. Such a shift exemplifies the need to move on, to collectively heal through renewed emphasis on and active engagement with what is happening in the present moment, while also preserving and commemorating the past.
The Internet is a complex new medium that allows for the intimacy, interactivity, and casualness of speech as well as the permanency and permeability of writing. The principal aim of this project is a phenomenological exploration of the ways in which these facets of the Internet have enabled mourners to expand upon the process of remembering the dead. Specifically, I have examined examples of “online shrines” on MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe, positioning them as vehicles for individual and collective remembrance of the dead. Each of these three sites differs significantly in terms of demographics, site features, and normative practices, and thus each will be analyzed in its own section. My analysis of this phenomenon is supplemented by online news articles, Internet forums, conversations with my friends, and literature from a variety of disciplines (philosophy, media studies, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and cognitive psychology). Furthermore, this analysis incorporates a variety of perspectives in the aim of providing a framework for understanding the complexities inherent in new technologies, which blur pre-existing boundaries of space, time, privacy, communication, representation, and memory.
In Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, Edward Casey describes what he calls the “primary traits of remembering”: search, display, encapsulment, expansion, persistence, and pastness. These traits are strikingly manifested on the Internet. Because most of the information available on the Internet is archived by search engines such as Google, the medium significantly enhances one’s capacity to recover and remember. Social networking sites like MySpace display individual personas through the construction of dynamic member Profiles. These Profiles serve to visually and textually articulate various aspects of one’s personality (such as interests, favorite books and movies, and photographs), one’s social network, and ongoing interactions via the medium (such as public messages, blog posts, and group discussions). In the event of a member’s death, this online presence becomes frozen, a potentially permanent encapsulation of a life as it was being lived online. Loved ones of the deceased often find that the persistence of this online identity reveals aspects of a life they may have been partially or wholly unaware of, and thus it enables the expansion of remembering. These online shrines, created through repeated visitation practices marked by the nostalgic public messages of loved ones, allow for the persistence of the deceased’s memory, which simultaneously and inevitably evokes hir very pastness.
The increasing ubiquity of online social networking in the everyday lives of youth has made the public archival of personal information into a normative practice. Despite popular discourse that perpetuates a distinction between “virtual” cyberspace and “real life,” it is evident that people are integrating technologies of the Internet into their lives as extensions of everyday communication and identity performance. By virtue of its embeddedness in the everyday interactions of young people, the Internet is in some respects a “cool” medium (Levinson 2000: 113) . To invoke another McLuhanism, “the medium is the message”- that is, media develop as extensions of ourselves, shaped by changing cultural conditions that are in turn affected by these new technologies. In his book discussing the impact of electronic media on social behavior, Joshua Meyrowitz (1985: 7) writes that “one of the reasons Americans may no longer seem to ‘know their place’ is that they no longer have a place in the traditional sense of a set of behaviors matched to physical locations and the audiences found in them.” Modern communications technologies have altered our perceptual fields by extending them beyond the realm of direct, face-to-face interaction. In turn, the perceived relationship between physical place and our social environment has been expanded into the seemingly nebulous virtual realm, allowing for the emergence of new pathways and horizons of experience. Casey’s discussion of place memory is an especially apt paradigm for understanding online social networks as a kind of place:
As previously noted, the primary function of online social networks is the explicit display of an individual’s social connections, cultural tastes, and interactions within the medium. To become a member of such sites is to construct a meaningful horizon, oriented about the self, within the vast cybernetic landscape. Within this horizon, memories are literally “inscribed and possessed”; the site serves as a container of past events, preserved and accessible through one’s personal Profile.
All technologies extend the possibilities of humankind, and in turn, they become humanized and embedded in everyday experiences. Thus, the notion of “embodiment” must be reconfigured in light of the highly participatory and immersive nature of online interaction. Just as the telephone evokes a sense of co-presence, so too can viewing and interacting with an online Profile make one feel as though the other is in some way “there.” It is common to observe continued interactions with the frozen online “presence” of the deceased in the form of conversational messages, as if the Profile were a medium that enables active communication with those who have departed from the physical world. However, such acts often elicit confusion and discomfort in those who would prefer to bury their dead. Furthermore, the casual and at times superficial nature of the Internet elicits a new set of issues concerning proper respect for the dead. What follows is a more nuanced exploration of the practices and attitudes surrounding this new form of commemoration.
MySpace, with over 200 million members, is the fifth most-visited website in the world (Alexa Web Inc., 2008). The site’s original niche membership was composed primarily of musicians, 20-somethings, and high school students. For teens in particular, the site serves as a medium through which they can “hang out” with their friends and express themselves freely. In the event of a member death, friends and family members will often continue to post Comments on the MySpace Profile of their loved one. These acts serve to reconstitute the site as a virtual shrine. The overwhelming majority of the “MySpace shrines” I found were instances of young and often tragic deaths, such as murder and suicide, perhaps modeled after spontaneously-created physical shrines commemorating sudden, unexpected deaths (such as the Princess Diana tragedy and the victims of 9/11). In nearly every case, such Profiles continued to serve as active sites of commemoration by family and friends even years after their creators’ deaths.
Unfortunately, the extremely public and corporate nature of MySpace allows for a high level of robot-spam, which may (however inadvertently) intrude on the “sacred” Profiles of the deceased. It is not uncommon to find Comments left by spam robots promoting pornography sites and diet pills in the midst of the heartfelt messages of Friends. This comes across as profanation of a “sacred” and set-apart space to those seeking to preserve and respect the “living memory” of the dead, a sentiment paralleled in cases of desecration of monuments and cultural artifacts. As one MyDeathSpace  member put it, “My deal I have since I have been on here, is all the spam left on these peoples Profiles after they have passed...that is a blight to see on any page, but it just seems wrong to see it…” For the most part, however, the Profiles of the dead become sites through which loved ones express their love and grief. Such messages are nearly always directed to the deceased, often as if ze was still checking hir Profile from beyond the grave. For example:
The above message is representative of the way in which many “native” MySpacers communicate through the medium, reflecting the manner in which the Internet transcends the spatial and temporal boundaries of the physical world. Communication within online social networks is unlike other forms of online communication (such as instant messaging and e-mail) in that reciprocity is not always expected. For instance, earlier today I posted words of encouragement on a friend’s Profile, simply to let her know that she’s not alone in spending her final weekend at school writing papers. More often than not, messages posted to online Profiles are intended as public displays of connection, serving primarily to affirm social bonds.
Online Profiles are far more than textual representations. Typically, one’s online persona includes photographs of oneself, one’s friends, and past experiences. The power of visual representations is best exemplified by their capacity to evoke visceral memories, enabling one to remember another with the immediacy and presence of the visual in tension with the very pastness of the person it represents. “Damn B! Itz takin me so long to even click onto ur page kuz of all the tears that wanna come out from just puttin the curser on ur pic,” writes one grieving friend. On the other hand, photographs are also open to subjective interpretation, and thus online Profiles may be judged in unintended and potentially negative ways. Furthermore, MySpace Profiles are, paradoxically, often rife with highly personal information, such as revealing photographs, online diaries, and emotionally fraught conversations played out through Comments. The casual and fun nature of the site can challenge the spirit of commemoration, confusing the boundaries between the casual nature of social relationships and the “sacred” nature of memorializing the deceased. Also, it is important to note that, though Profiles are often publicly accessible, they are frequently made publicly visible in the event of their owner’s death.
Death undoubtedly provokes some of the deepest fears and fascinations. Some, driven by fascination, seek out open and safe spaces on the Internet to discuss issues surrounding death with others who share their frank curiosity. In searching for the MySpace Profiles of the deceased, I was led to the controversial site MyDeathSpace.com. This popular “death networking” site serves to catalogue obituaries that include links to the MySpace Profiles of the dead. MyDeathSpace maintains a heavily active message board, home to a solid niche community teeming with camaraderie. The vast majority of message threads on the site are found in the “Off-Topic” forum, where it is made evident that the community is composed of a diverse group of individuals drawn to the site for myriad reasons. Through regular, thoughtful, and playful text-based communication, members of MyDeathSpace may rightfully be called a “virtual community.” As the name “MyDeathSpace” implies, there is certainly a dark and morbid element to the community, whose members would be the first to acknowledge.
This dark side can be found in the second most active forum, “Article Discussions.” Here, conversations center around reactions to specific obituaries posted on the site, particularly those pertaining to murder, suicide, and stories considered to be of “public interest” (such as the Virginia Tech shootings and the death of Anna Nicole Smith). Such public “chitchat” about deceased individuals frequently provokes outrage in grieving individuals discovering that their dearly departed is a subject of public interest and, at times, hurtful gossip. The anger and confusion that may result from coming across casual public discussion of the deceased is evident in the following post, titled “Confused, Help Me Understand”:
The community nature of the site manifests itself in times of unity in defense of their actions. Members argue that the MySpace Profiles of the dead help to humanize life and death, providing a window for understanding the greatest of mankind’s mysteries. Others take a less romantic perspective; as one member put it, “MySpace has given dead people their 15 minutes.” Nevertheless, it is generally agreed upon that “if you don't want certain aspects of your life to be made public, then YOU have to keep it out of the internet. If you project yourself as a ‘bad ass gangster’ or such, chances are that's how people are going to remember you when you are gone.”
The above message demonstrates a common process of remembrance: external reminders follow internal mental pathways, evoking emotional memories that find their fulfillment in external, outwardly-directed expression. It is through language that we represent and understand our experiences; they take on meaning through the process of articulation. In this particular form of articulation, these experiences become recorded in a “place” that serves to encapsulate the identity of another. In this way, online social networks serve as extensions of our memory, tangible pathways that connect us to the past.
Individual Profiles are but one way in which online social networks allow for remembrance of the dead. On Tribe, most communication occurs through participation in the message board forums of various online groups, called Tribes. The site is notably “alternative” in nature, with a substantial population of intimately connected but geographically dispersed members of a community revolving around the annual Burning Man arts festival. Because they are often geographically dislocated from one another, Tribe is a crucial platform through which this community communicates. When a member of this community dies, she is often commemorated in forum threads of the Tribes she was a member of. Friends share stories, personal feelings, images, and links to artwork created in honor of the deceased. Unlike the default option for MySpace Profiles, public messages posted to individual Profiles (called “Testimonials”) must be approved by the owner in order to be displayed, and thus individual Profiles themselves do not become sites of collective commemoration or personal communication .
It should also be noted that Tribe.net is generally “information-centric” in nature, while MySpace is more “ego-centric.” Like MyDeathSpace, these forums are replete with camaraderie and intimate, long-distance friendships that are more likely to have formed online than off. In the events of deaths among the Burning Man community, whose official Tribe is the most popular group on the site with nearly 18,000 members, the group’s forum is used to disseminate news about memorial services, expressions of condolence, words of wisdom and support, sharing cherished memories of the deceased, and providing links to groups and websites formed in their honor. The strong community nature of the site is exemplified by the fact that the site owners themselves often post messages such as the following: “To Shoshana and Nathan, their families, friends, and everyone else effected by this accident, the prayers and well wishes of all the Tribe staff are with you.”
Because the site is not well known and most members identify themselves by nicknames, many of the problems that arise in more public sites (such as MySpace) are negated. Rather, in this realm the deceased is memorialized as a member of a particular community, inspiring a strong online support network. Through such forms of collective remembrance, many find a renewed sense of community:
Many of the deaths reported on Tribe forums serve to highlight pertinent issues for the communities involved. For example, deaths at Burning Man are oftentimes the result of unsafe practices that occur in the unique environment of the Playa, such as bicycle and automobile accidents, drug overdoses, and dehydration. Such tragedies inspire others to learn valuable lessons that are passed on to the wider community. This is but one way in which the deceased “live on” in the community. Deaths may also serve to strengthen community by enabling new relationships to form on the basis of shared love and loss:
The nature of Tribe.net is such that “alternative” lifestyles and viewpoints are normalized and encouraged. Those connected through Tribes like Burning Man have often come together through underground happenings that promote shared values of creativity, generosity, acceptance, and collective ecstatic experience. The nature of remembrance often reflects these sentiments:
Members of Tribe often form relationships with one another online with those they physically interact with only occasionally or never at all. Thus, traditional memorial services may be geographically distant, or simply awkward for those who knew the deceased only or for the most part through the Internet:
Nevertheless, online mourners find support in commemorating the dead through a medium that, for some of the Tribe population, is well-known and comfortable. Loved ones of the deceased, if they discover the site, may encounter an entire community of grieving friends they weren’t aware of, and this can help them feel closer to who they really were:
Unlike MyDeathSpace, where anonymous strangers often casually engage in what could be construed as disrespectful or “profane” conversation about posted deaths, deaths discussed on Tribe are much more sensitive. When strangers do contribute to these threads, I have observed only words of respect and sympathy. Such a contrast exemplifies the manner in which small, niche-based online communities differ greatly from massive and more publicly visible sites such as MySpace.
Though Facebook is currently one of the most popular social sites on the Web, membership was originally limited to American college students. The site serves as a container of information pertinent to the offline social worlds of its members, and is a fairly accurate representation of the typical campus community. One of the unique features of Facebook is the constantly-updated stream of “headlines” delivered to a user’s homepage, which detail the recent activities of Friends in one’s network. This feature, called the “News Feed,” enables the spread of social information that would otherwise be relegated to more active and unilaterally directed forms of communication, such as face-to-face conversation and telephone calls. As such, it is possible that geographically distant friends may learn of a common friend’s death upon logging into the site, for even the personal messages posted on the Walls of those in one’s social network may appear as a “headline,” as well as newly-formed Groups created or joined by friends in honor of the deceased. On Facebook, the personal Profiles of individuals are typically visible only to those within their social networks, and thus I was unable to personally view any examples of memorialized Profiles. Nevertheless, secondhand accounts attest to the fact that friends post messages on the Facebook Profiles of the deceased in a manner similar to that of MySpace. Though my friend Celia personally believes Facebook Profiles to be “immature,” she related to me that she regularly comes across new messages posted on the Wall of her brother’s girlfriend, even nearly two years after her tragic death. In this way, the site serves as a vehicle of individual remembrance, permanently encapsulating the dead and providing an outlet for publicly exhibiting their ongoing presence in the minds of the living. These messages, depending on one’s News Feed settings, may appear on the Facebook homepages of those in her social network, and thus serve as reminders for the remembrances of others.
Unlike MySpace, individual Facebook Profiles are typically inaccessible for strangers, eliminating the privacy problems faced by the former. Groups, on the other hand, are more often than not publicly accessible, and it is a common practice for friends to create Groups in memory of the dead. These Groups facilitate collective remembrance much like those on Tribe, enabling the dissemination of information and encouraging commemoration. Due to the ease with which Facebook enables the sharing of various forms of media, I regularly came across a plethora of homemade videos, captioned photographs, and shared links to online news articles that serve to commemorate and preserve the deceased, encapsulated within the online shrine of a Facebook Group. Additionally, Group members will often Comment on these individual objects of memory, as well as share memories, poems, and other sentiments on the homepage of the Group itself. In fact, it was through coming across (via headlines on my News Feed) just such a Group, joined by 29 of my Friends, that I learned of the death of an old high school acquaintance. Such Groups, like those on Tribe, provide a means of collective remembrance that serves to strengthen community bonds (though rather than communities based on shared interests or lifestyles, communities on Facebook typically represent college campuses and high schools).
Though I’d barely known Chris, I felt proud of my friends for respecting his memory in a manner truly befitting of our “digital generation,” and thankful for the medium that allows the deceased to be commemorated by people who were connected to him, regardless of geographic distance or how much time had elapsed since they’d last communicated with him. The stories and photographs shared about Chris helped me get to know this person who was a cherished member of the community I grew up in. In the same vein, Celia was able to learn more about her brother’s girlfriend, whom she had met only twice. Though she was thankful “that people have this venue to honor/remember/communicate with her by,” the content of the messages posted did not sit well with her:
As is evidenced also on MyDeathSpace, the public nature of online memorials enables others to pass judgment on the deceased on the basis of mediated information. “In the end,” Celia concluded, “I didn't approve of her lifestyle or values so I'm most saddened by the fact that she would probably approve of this as a form of remembrance.”
Despite Celia’s distaste for the site, it is clear that many feel strongly about the medium as a way of honoring the memory of the deceased. Facebook’s policies regarding the status of deceased members’ Profiles have been the subject of much controversy. Originally, their policy was to “memorialize” such Profiles, removing them 30 days after becoming aware of member deaths (Walker 2006). However, following the murders of 32 students at Virginia Tech, this policy was revoked, allowing Profiles to remain (in a “memorialized state”) indefinitely . The campaign behind this change was spearheaded by John Woods, a friend of the fallen students, who organized a Facebook Group entitled “Facebook Memorialization Is Misguided: Dead Friends Are Still People” that amassed 2700 members in two weeks. Despite the change in policy, the Group continues to be quite active with 1,518 members (as of April 2008). The Group Description lists the following current issues:
The founding principle behind the group is that dead people deserve to “live on” through Facebook, just as they do in the memories of others. Furthermore, many Americans believe that those who have died continue to look after those they have left behind from heaven. "I went to it and saw how many people are still leaving comments about missing her, wishing her happy birthday, and just saying random things that they would say if she were still alive," Lewis wrote. "I find this so touching and I'm sure that she does to, up there in heaven (as cited in Stelter 2006)." Interestingly, I rarely came across instances of communication between members of these Groups, whereas interpersonal support is prominent on Tribe.net. This is likely due to the fact that Facebook networks are spatially-bound representations of offline communities, and thus grieving friends likely provide support for one another in face-to-face contexts.
In describing her experience with viewing the Facebook Profile of a deceased high school acquaintance, my friend Alice expressed discomfort with the “strangeness” of others’ use of the medium to continue communicating with the dead. However, it would seem that communication within online social networks is simply preferable for some, particularly those who regularly interact electronically. The relationship between “native” users of the Internet and one’s interactions with the medium can be likened to the habitual nature of “body memory,” which Casey discusses at length. For example, as I sit here writing on my laptop, I find myself instinctually responding to the “ding” that signifies a new e-mail, and in moments am clicking on a link that sends me to my Facebook Profile. Drawn down this familiar pathway, I reflexively scan the News Feed and check to see which of my Friends have recently updated their Profiles. The faces of my friends peer back at me, reminding me of their existence. Scarcely a day goes by without some form of communication through this medium, which does not require the immediate presence of others, nor their reciprocity. The simple act of pressing “send” is a fulfillment of the intention behind this particular communicative act, for seeing the message displayed on the screen confirms that communication has occurred. For “digital natives,” it is often more comfortable to communicate with unseen others through the online medium than it is to communicate with the dead in more traditional ways, such as kneeling in prayer or lighting a candle in church. Thus, it does not seem particularly strange to me that those accustomed to this form of communication may continue to post messages directed to a dead friend, reinforcing a habitual act that serves to express the ongoing presence of another in one’s memory.
Through this elucidation of the myriad ways in which the dead are commemorated in the “online shrines” of MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe, it is clear that the Internet extends the possibilities for the persistence of memory. Though Casey’s traits of remembrance remain pertinent (if somewhat altered), I contend that his emphasis on physical “place” on the process of remembering must be extended to include “virtual space” as well. As the term “cyberspace” implies, people conceptualize the abstract realm of the Internet metaphorically, relating it to more familiar domains of embodied experience and physical place. Thus, this modern cybernetic process of memorialization is modeled on prior practices of mourning in physical places, such as creating memorial walls and visiting gravesites. However, at times new technologies may seem alien and incomprehensible, instigating fear and a sense of powerlessness (Jackson 2005: 131). Through modern technology, our experiences of the social world are increasingly disconnected from the physicality of the body and the place it is located in. On the Internet, we are everywhere and nowhere at once. Online social networks expand one’s horizon of social interactions, simultaneously blurring the pathways between them. As a result of these new formations, a whole new set of anxieties and possibilities arise, challenging preconceived notions regarding the boundaries between public and private, respect for the dead, rituals of mourning, and the persistence of individual identity.
Though death is a universal inevitability of humankind, and though it may come at any time, it is precisely for these reasons that we go about our everyday lives without consciously factoring in its imminent possibility. If we did, we would forever be locked in existential stasis. To act, at least in American society, is often to direct oneself toward some future possibility- of happiness, reward, prestige, love, security, and on and on. Thus, when we “type ourselves into being” online, we are motivated by such possibilities and often fail to factor in that we are creating traces of ourselves that will outlive their creators. However, just as traces of a deceased individual persist in the remembrances of others and through objects such as graves and photographs, so too do they persist in the ethereal realm of the Internet. Like traditional memorial services, the sites of these traces can serve to connect previously unaffiliated individuals through their shared grief. The Internet expands this possibility of connection, for it is in many ways easier to articulate deeply felt feelings to strangers through the anonymity, convenience, and immateriality of online communication. Despite the concerns of those still not comfortable with the medium, online social networks enable grieving friends to share stories, media, and words of support at any time, regardless of the distance between them. Though it is not particularly pleasant to ponder the traces we leave of ourselves after death, this project has hopefully illuminated the ways in which online Profiles evolve into ongoing sites of commemoration, suggesting that we take into consideration how we choose to represent ourselves through them.
© Jenny Ryan 2008