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Post Mortem Digital Presences

I'm afraid I've missed most of today's AoIR 2016 conference because of meetings, but at least I've made it to the final session of the day, which starts with Paula Kiel. Her interest is in the emerging practices of the collective afterlife: Websites created for post mortem digital interaction. Such sites are usually created before death, and enable their users to actively configure how they want to be remembered online after they have died.

One such site enables users to create video messages that are sent to their family members on particular occasions; another deletes specific embarrassing content from social media platforms after death and sets a perpetual out-of-office message. One site, called Dead Man's Switch, requires regular log-ins from the user – and when these log-ins no longer occur, it sends out farewell messages. Yet another engages in machine learning to create a (more or less) realistic avatar that continues the user's social media activities.

Some of these simply manage or close down social media accounts, then; others send final farewell messages; yet others send messages on special occasions long after death or artificially continue one's online presence. Some of this is about managing communication technologies and their affordances, therefore; some of it is about rethinking our modern construction of death and mourning. What these Websites potentially do is to enable practices of an uncontrolled presence of death, outside of currently common practices.

The majority of the work on these Websites goes into the design of these Websites and their affordances, and into the creation of the post mortem content by users. There is a great deal of work here that happens before these sites themselves carry out their intended purposes. There is a lot less focus on the recipients of these messages and on their use of the sites – and indeed user interface design and usage research is quite difficult given our cultural perspectives on death.

But all of these are also collective practices: life overall continues after an individual dies, and there is therefore a collective afterlife (of family, friends, and humanity itself) in which the memory of the deceased persists at least to some extent. These sites address just how that memory is positioned in the context of that collective afterlife.