by Lilly Ryan
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
– Emily Dickinson
1. Ghosts in the machine
In late 2017, my aunt passed away. She’d had cancer for many years, and at the age of 60, her health had finally deteriorated past the point where her body could continue. Her passing was bittersweet. Saying goodbye to such a kind, warm person was difficult, but knowing she was no longer in pain brought some comfort.
Over breakfast one morning in early 2018, I got a notification on Facebook inviting me to wish my aunt a happy birthday. “Celebrate with her!” it said, next to an illustration of streamers and balloons. I couldn’t finish my oats. Suddenly I was feeling both the full force of the raw sadness I had felt several months earlier, and also a roiling anger. This was not the way I wanted to be reminded of her, but here it was: cheery, impersonal, and automated, in the middle of event invites and goofy selfies and all the other ephemera of digital life. In present tense.
This was not the first time I had run into reminders of absent friends, or friends-of-friends, around my Facebook feed. Sometimes I would see pictures of old acquaintances smiling up at me from the sidebar, suggesting I might also like a product they had once liked when they were alive. When someone I didn’t really know in my social circle died, they would sometimes appear in my “People you may know” recommendations as algorithms picked up on grieving mutual friends all mentioning them suddenly.
This experience is nothing new. Reminders of people who have gone from our lives can happen everywhere, without warning. Sometimes a letter will show up addressed to a dead relative. Someone might walk by in the street wearing a scent an old friend favoured. When browsing my bookshelves, I occasionally get the sudden reminder of an abusive ex when I come across their handwriting on the front page of a book.
When these reminders happen online, however, there’s an edge to them that is particularly painful. Social media is especially bad for this. Most social media platforms make their money through advertising. Scythe in hand, they reap our relationships with each other in order to sell us things, regardless of the ways in which we meet, or the terms on which we part. This business model means it is in the interests of most online services to emphasise things that are “current” and “trending”. But when an ad for a new movie is juxtaposed with the face of someone who is no longer around to experience these things with you, it brings that person’s absence into sharp relief. “Here is someone I might have gone to see this with,” I have thought when this happens, were it not for “their accident”/”our difficult break up”/”the fact that they are dead.” And then I make a fresh cup of tea while I try to stop my hands from shaking, my mood abruptly shot through with grief.
2. Features forged in the fires of failure
The dearth of options for dealing with the departed makes it difficult for those of us who have experienced loss to navigate news feeds comfortably. As time wears on, more people we know will die. More accounts will go dark. “On this day six years ago” runs more of a chance of being something that will stop us cold rather than make us smile. Life wears on, and algorithms primed to emphasise the positive in human interactions are laughably under-equipped to deal with the reality that a lot of life is grief and goodbyes, and there are many memories we would rather visit in private, and in our own time.
Funnily enough, although I feel that Facebook is one of the worst offenders for the heartless resurrection of the dead, it is also Facebook who has provided the most nuanced tools for handling these moments. These tools, however, are still more sword than scalpel, and almost all forged in the fires of failure. Finding the settings is a minor Arthurian quest in itself. Though the option is buried deep in our news feed settings, we can now tell Facebook, “don’t show this person in memories”, for whatever reason we don’t want to be spontaneously reminded of them. The abilities to unfollow, block, and delete other users from our spaces are of varying use in freeing us up from running across those people in the sidebar accidentally. Facebook allows family to “memorialise” a person’s account after they pass away, so that their profile becomes a place to gather and remember, but won’t haunt the results of active algorithms.
Many services will also shut down the accounts of dead users if you ask officially enough. Of course, to mitigate the risk of this being abused, this process is lengthy and requires you to embark upon the kind of quest that would make even King Arthur quail. First, you must find the right address for an actual human team in the belly of the beast. Then, you must provide them with a death certificate. Failing that (or in addition to it), some places will accept a list of other official things like power of attorney documents, the deceased person’s will, or a published obituary. To shut down a Gmail account, you also need to provide the headers of an email that the deceased once sent you from that address. After that (and presumably after you have lit candles, walked counterclockwise around a table, and thrown in the eye of a newt for good measure) you wait for a faceless arbitrator to decide whether the request will be granted. You’d better hope it is not your departed friend’s birthday while all this is happening because you can’t speed up the process, regardless of how many newts you use.
This process is all well and good, but the system is predicated on the idea that the next of kin will even be aware of the option, let alone have enough energy to deal with it while already handling all the other practical realities of a loved one’s death. In the case of my aunt’s old Facebook account, I didn’t have access to any of the things I could have used to have her profile memorialised or closed: those documents were in the hands of a cousin I didn’t know very well, and it felt strange to bring it up with him, as if I were trying to erase my aunt somehow. This was not at all what I wanted. It was this same feeling that stopped me from “unfollowing” her or removing her as a friend: the language used for these things didn’t reflect the action I wanted to take. She was still my friend. She was just dead. And so she kept appearing all across my feed, trying to sell me her favourite brand of sneakers.
3. Toward the full five Thanatoi
Death is the ultimate log-out. But to a service designed to stop you doing precisely this, there is only the vaguest vocabulary for it.
Human-computer interaction researchers are trying to build a new one, under the banner of “thanatosensitivity”, named for Thanatos, the ancient Greek personification of Death. Rather than representing a violent death, Thanatos and his brother Hypnos (the personification of Sleep) were envisaged as gentle guides into the afterlife whenever the time came.
The compassionate touch dreamed of by the ancient Greeks is what guides digital thanatosensitivity in practice. The developers of a thanatosensitive application would take the eventual mortality of its users into account during its design, giving the process of retiring an account equal priority to things like the look and feel of the interface, the relevance of search results, or the simplicity of the public API. A properly thanatosensitive approach drives discussions about the legacy of accounts and their data. With these considerations come more graceful handling of not only a user’s death, but any other kind of relationships’ end between two or more user accounts and, at the end of the day, fewer News Feed faux pas.
Mainstream social media services occasionally have thanatosensitive features, but there are almost no properly thanatosensitive platforms. Facebook lets you nominate several trusted Legacy Contacts who can memorialise and curate your profile when you die. Google’s Inactive Account Manager feature does a similar thing for your Gmail and Drive assets. Providing pathways for a user to record their wishes for their digital personae in advance is a smart move: rated maybe two Thanatoi out of a possible five. Digital estate planning increasingly goes hand-in-hand with more established types of planning, like the drawing up of a will. But there are still plenty of people who die without ever having gotten around to recording a will or a Legacy Contact, and the reach of the average person’s digital estate has a social impact that their worldly assets rarely do.
The key thing I found I was missing from my jarring breakfast experience was a way to manage my online relationship with my aunt now that she was no longer alive to participate in it with me. As someone who was not close enough to that part of the family to go the official Arthurian quest route, and not wanting to use the language of harassment or disagreement (“block”, “delete”, “unfollow”) to govern my relationship with her, I was left with the ongoing possibility of having her pop up unexpectedly and painfully wherever I went. Zero Thanatoi out of a possible five.
What is left to us, as perhaps the secondary bereaved? Our one real option on Facebook, “Don’t show this person in memories” is a manual and boolean process. There’s no gentle “not right now” button next to the post. There’s no ‘ferryman mode’ which takes the profiles of departed loved ones by the hand and leads them away from the trappings of our News Feeds: still friends, but no longer buoying up sponsored posts, or the subject of cheerful birthday reminders.
What is left to us is to describe, design, and campaign for the thanatosensitive tools that we deserve in this context, to make the Silicon Valley behemoths do better, and to forge these tools ourselves wherever it is within our power to do so.
What is left to us is to champion the voices of the departed and to liberate them from an afterlife of corporate recommendations.
What is left to us is to advocate for the full five-out-of-five Thanatoi experience in the formation of online spaces where we can look at cat GIFs over breakfast without upsettingly juxtaposed reminders of absent friends.
There will always be mornings like my aunt’s first posthumous birthday, but I hold out hope for mornings where I have the agency to shape my relationship with those moments in a way that gives the power back to the both of us, living and dead. It should not belong to an algorithm, which never breathed – it should belong to each of us, and to the people that we miss.
Lilly Ryan is a pen tester, Python wrangler, and recovering historian from Melbourne. She writes and speaks internationally about ethical software, social identities after death, security, and the telegraph. More recently she has researched the domestic use of arsenic in Victorian England, attempted urban camouflage, reverse engineered APIs, wielded the Oxford comma, and baked a really good lemon and coconut cake.