Death, Bereavement and the Digital Graveyard

I woke up this morning to see a slew of thoughts and condolences on one of my social networks. A young woman had passed unexpectedly a few days ago, leaving a husband and young children to mourn her sudden demise. The woman’s online friends, a group of people spanning the world, were notified this morning when her still grieving husband logged on to her social accounts to let people that she had never even met face to face know of the loss.

One of the things said by the husband was that he planned to leave her accounts open, because it’s what she would have wanted.

It is a truth facing those of the digital age. Our circle of friends is no longer limited by those people we have met face to face. Our only connection to some of our closest friends is established through use of mediums such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, MMO games and online worlds. There are even friendships going back to the days of BBS and modems. I’ve cheered for friends who have gotten married and had children, and yet have never heard their voice. I have only seen their words online.

Today we are connected in ways that our forefathers could never have imagined. However, these connections also come with a price. Namely, how do we as a species grieve when there is only a digital totem to honor the departed. Sure, there are physical sites to be visited, but how many really have the means to travel, sometimes to the other side of the world?

Just as troublesome, but also an issue which needs explored, is this: What obligation do the websites hosting the digital memorials have to the departed and those who wish to honor their memory?

We are still in the early ages of the internet, and the social network. As developed as it seems we must remember that even as recent as 10 years ago the words Facebook and MySpace would have appeared odd misspellings. MMO games were in their infancy, with Everquest being the main player at the time. To those of us who are early digital immigrants or the slightly younger, original, digital natives it feels that online connections are the norm. However in the history of humanity this is a recent phenomenon.

As a species we mourn those who have been lost. We look for ways to honor their memories, and with the absence of physical means we look to those places on the network where we shared ideas, laughter and sorrow. Condolences are posted to walls, and even years later a person may return to the profile of a departed friend to honor their memory just as a family member would lay flowers on a grave.

However, just as a final resting place at a graveyard comes at a price, so too does the digital real estate that is maintained.

Digital real estate, mainly comprised of urls, storage and bandwidth, is not a free product. Even if a company gives you the use of their product for free, there is still a cost in the end. All those annoyances, such as advertising, are in place to keep the product free for the users while covering the costs to the companies. However those departed from this world can no longer click links to cover their part without even knowing it.

For now, this is not yet a noticeable problem. The digital age is too new, and its inhabitants are still mostly young. But in the future what will happen to the online memorials? Will companies shoulder the costs as a token of goodwill to the netizens who will continue to visit the growing digital graveyard; or will profiles be quietly closed after a time to conserve the valuable digital real estate, thus angering the friends who have lost a place of mourning?

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