The term ‘afterlife’ is familiar to most of us, but what about ‘digital afterlife’?
When someone we care about dies, we can be left wondering what happens next. The idea of an afterlife might come to mind. We might think: is there an afterlife? – or life after death – and if there is, what does it mean for the dead? We might further wonder, if it exists, what might this afterlife mean for the living; might an afterlife mean that those who die can somehow remain among us, the living?
These are among the many questions that the notion of ‘digital afterlife’ brings up and that we at the DiDe research consortium examine from different perspectives. While the concept of an afterlife typically implies survival of the soul or conscience after the death of the physical body, the term ‘digital afterlife’ has come to encompass much more than an abstract idea of continued post-life existence.
As the name suggests, digital afterlife is both produced and shaped by the digital condition of contemporary society – digital afterlife is a by-product of digital life. Digital afterlife is intertwined with data, digital services and platforms as well as digital devices that together with social interaction, how people engage with these, produce what can be called a digital afterlife. Digital afterlife thus carries the characteristics of the digital, but what are these?
Characteristics of the digital shape what digital afterlife can be(come)
First, and perhaps surprisingly, digital afterlife is very much material in nature. Perhaps the easiest way to think about the material nature of digital afterlife is to think of all the digital traces we leave, such as photos and videos, personal messages, social media profiles and so on. Created during one’s life in the most ordinary contexts, among family and friends, these are often not intended to become part of an afterlife of any sort. This data can thus also include the most personal and intimate social interactions and communication that often piles up over years and years of using media and communication technologies. However, the living hardly ever give much thought to the idea that their data will outlive them, not to mention think carefully about what happens to this data once they are gone – yet this links back to the idea of an afterlife as a kind of presence of the dead. When it comes to digital afterlife, then, and given the material nature and abundance of data, what kind of presence might this be?
Second, what a digital afterlife consists of is not clearly bounded or demarcated, but rather, changes with each interaction. For example, public and violent death is easily captured by on-lookers and by-standers on their smart phones. Though these images undoubtedly also have witnessing power and importance is seeking justice, they nevertheless contribute to the digital afterlife of victims. One’s digital afterlife, then, continues to evolve after death and is not fixed or constant. It also reflects those who interact with it: to the bereaved, the digital afterlife of their dead can be diversely experienced (e.g., comfort, memory, pain, relief, ambivalence), but to those not personally connected with the dead, the digital afterlife might represent nothing more than digital content to be edited, recycled, reposted and repurposed.
These characteristics of digital data, its malleability and mutability, render digital afterlife vulnerable and subject to manipulation. Deaths that gain extensive media coverage, for example, might include images of the dead and, on occasion, images of dying. As data is easily editable and re-shareable, bits of digital material concerning the dead may be taken out of context or recontextualised in unwanted ways (it is not uncommon for images of victims of public death to appear in memes, for example) where it can remain in circulation as moderation of online content is very difficult. This shows not only the ways in which digital afterlife can evolve after death, with each interaction and new iteration adding to it, but also how digital afterlife might be beyond control and potentially dispersed across multiple platforms and devices.
Digital afterlife poses new questions for researching digital life
While digital afterlife can be a source of comfort for some, it can also be problematic. As the dead are not always the creators of the digital material relating to them, the material contributing to one’s digital afterlife may be created by others (with or without the knowledge or consent of the dead), or it may be created after their death. In the more problematic cases, where violent deaths are recorded and shared publicly online not by by-standers but by perpetrators (the Christchurch mosque attacks, for example), new questions are being posed, such as what kind of presence or memory of the dead does digital afterlife convey or construct? What are the implications for the legacy of the dead when digital afterlife is created by unknown others, fragmented, dispersed and posthumously repurposed?
These questions have consequences for both the living and the dead. Research into digital afterlife is a relatively recent phenomenon and involves many disciplines, from death studies to media and communication studies. We at the Digital Death: Transforming History, Rituals and Afterlife consortium are keen to contribute to this rapidly developing research area.
Harju, A. A. & Huhtamäki, J. (forthcoming 2023) Streaming death: terrorist violence and the digital afterlife of difficult death. In S. Coleclough, B. Michael-Fox & R. Visser (Eds.), Difficult Death: Challenging Cultural Representations of Death, Dying and the Dead in Media and Culture. Palgrave
Mason-Robbie & Savin-Baden (2020). Digital Afterlife: Death Matters in a Digital Age. CRC Press.
Sisto, D. (2020). Online Afterlives: Immortality, Memory, and Grief in Digital Culture. MIT Press. Translated by B. McClellan-Broussard.
Stokes, P. (2021). Digital Souls: A Philosophy of Online Death. Bloomsbury.