Who owns our virtual legacy after we’re gone?

Broken phone in the grave with thumbs-up like symbols floating out of it.

Death: the only certainty in life after birth. Yet few of us like to think about it – let alone talk about it – especially when it comes to our own mortality.

Duty of death

One day, someone will have to sort through all the ‘stuff’ we leave behind, both physical and virtual.

So, who decides what happens to our online memories when we’re no longer here to curate them? Who ‘owns’ our virtual legacy? And how do we create new rituals for death and grieving in this era of social media?

That’s exactly what UQ PhD candidate Katy McHugh is on a mission to determine.

Portrait image of Katy McHugh. They are wearing a yellow t-shirt and silver necklace, and have brown eyes and curly brown hair.

A Casual Academic with ITEE and Learning Designer for the School of Communication and Arts with qualifications in design and technology, Katy McHugh is in the second year of her PhD. She expects to complete her thesis in 2023.

A Casual Academic with ITEE and Learning Designer for the School of Communication and Arts with qualifications in design and technology, Katy McHugh is in the second year of her PhD. She expects to complete her thesis in 2023.

McHugh describes herself as a ‘digital humanist’. In other words, she uses digital tools such as text mining, text analysis and corpus linguistics to design solutions for issues arising in the humanities.

She is now applying these techniques to the topic of death and how it’s affected by social media.

“I believe that everyone should talk more about death during life and try not to be afraid of it.”

“The best way to prepare for death is to learn about it and to know that there is no prescribed set of rules for grieving: everything is normal. The more we can prepare for our eventual demise, the easier it will be for us and for our loved ones,” McHugh said.

A hard-won lesson she discovered for herself after experiencing the passing of some people close to her and having a coping mechanism that was to deny anything was happening.

Death as ritual

Throughout history, cultures across the world have evolved their own particular practices to farewell the dead – from the mummification of bodies in ancient Egypt and the present Torajan region, to the Japanese Kotsuage and Indian open-air pyre cremation processes, to the sky burials in Tibet, sea burials in England and ground burials nearly everywhere.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander burials in the past often included favourite possessions of the deceased being placed alongside the body, which may have been in a sitting or lying position, in groups or alone.

The ceremonies and rituals that accompanied these practices provided some comfort to those left behind and were seen as respectful of the dead.

What McHugh has noticed recently, however, is that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a lot of anger is being expressed by the bereaved, who have been unable to participate in the usual rituals of attending funerals or saying goodbye to their loved ones in person.

“Lots of medical personnel are having to take on roles that immediate family members used to do, such as arranging facetime phone calls with extended family or conveying personal messages, when the person dying is in isolation,” she said.

“This is distressing for them and the families and has led to an outpouring of grief on Twitter and other social media platforms, with messages like ‘XX is dead, wear your f---ing mask’.

“This has not happened previously; people used to be more respectful when notifying of a death – but now people seem to feel that the government has failed them, and they want to vent.

“I’m wondering whether social media gives people easier access to be more honest or if technology is just facilitating the open sharing of grief. The concept of ‘respect’ needs to be redefined.”

And it’s not just the messages placed on social media accounts: behaviours are changing too.

“Young people have been known to take funeral selfies or add the ‘F’ symbol to memorial sites, which could be seen as disrespectful by those unfamiliar with the reference,” McHugh said.

“But young people see it quite the opposite; they are sharing their grief and honouring the person who has passed away.

“Perhaps we need to have a collective discussion about what is most appropriate in these physically distanced times with so much communication occurring online.”

Angel statue

Death as entertainment

Where most do draw the line, though, is the concept of death as entertainment.

“With live streaming of events now possible, people are attracting large audiences on social media for horrific acts – which we saw recently during the mass shootings in New Zealand and after those in Sandy Hook, and from popular YouTube influencer Logan Paul’s discovery of a dead body in the Aokigahara ‘suicide forest’ in Japan,” McHugh said.

The Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji, Japan

The Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji, Japan. Image credit: Abhijeet / Adobe Stock.

The Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji, Japan. Image credit: Abhijeet / Adobe Stock.

“Most agree that these behaviours are unacceptable.”

“What gives people the right to be so disrespectful? This behaviour definitely needs to improve. 

“Perhaps we need to establish an internationally endorsed template for social media companies to be more stringent in deciding what’s acceptable – and lawful – and what’s not.”

Death Positive movement

Much as the Body Positive and Me Too movements have helped people deal with subjects previously considered taboo, speaking about death before it happens – as Death Positive movement founder Caitlin Doughty advocates – may help us deal with some of its more confronting aspects.

“If we know well in advance what a person wants when they die – for example, burial or cremation, social media legacy or not – it will be much easier for those remaining to know they have respected the wishes of their loved ones and so reduce any later guilt over decisions made.”

“And it may help us explore new developments such as thanatechnology, natural burials and aquamation," McHugh said.

“The DeathTech Research Team in Melbourne has several ongoing projects including The Future Cemetery and Disposal of the Dead that explore emerging alternatives to traditional body disposal and the potential for new technologies to enhance the public’s experience of the cemetery.”

Still, talks of this type are not always easy, as McHugh well knows, despite researching death on a daily basis.

She copes by sharing her thoughts with others in the industry, whom she has found to have great respect for the deceased, and by being sensitive and respectful with others when the topic is raised. In particular, she is part of the Australian Death Studies Society and takes part in the Postgraduate Researcher Support Group provided by the Association for the Study of Death and Society.

“I was initially drawn to this field of research because I decided I should face my fears directly and see if I could improve things,” she said.

And with a background in information technology and digital scholarship, studying the impact of death on social media was a natural starting point.

Graveyard in sunset with warm light

Digital legacy of death

“When someone dies, they more than likely have a will to specify where they want their ‘things’ to go,” McHugh said.

“But how many people consider their digital legacy? What do they want done with the plethora of social media and online messages? Do they want their friends and family to be upset by the inadvertent algorithmic cruelty of Facebook, for example, or to be ‘haunted’ by digital ghosts?”

Here too, difficulties can emerge that come back to respect. What one person sees as the respectful removal of a social media website may be seen by another as an insult to their memory: ‘don’t de-friend the dead’.

“Perhaps we need to highlight the importance of digital wills that clearly identify who has responsibility for the deceased’s online memories – who ‘owns’ access to their images and who can memorialise them, if necessary,” said McHugh.

“This could be part of the formal funeral service – an actual and a virtual farewell.

“Otherwise, we can have situations like the man in the Canada who was so distraught by his fiancee’s death that he created a chatbot in her image. Did she give consent for him to do that? Did they talk about it beforehand?”

And this may be just the start, with Microsoft patenting software in 2017 that could reincarnate people as chatbots by pulling data from their social media posts and text messages (though this patent was never put into production due to its ‘disturbing nature’, as pointed out by Microsoft’s general manager of AI programs). 

Respect and informed consent are issues of high concern for McHugh in dealing with the legacy of the dead, and she’d like to propose new provocations and design solutions.

But the digital landscape is changing all the rules in life: the only certainty before death.

Join the conversation

How has social media changed the way you pay respects to loved ones who have died?

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