Social media loves death, and guarantees a digital afterlife to everyone, especially those who can lay claim to a sliver of fame. Even the moderately famous—drummers in 1970s rock bands, for example—are automatically granted online funerary rites, with 140 characters replacing floral tributes, and Facebook postings standing in for graveside eulogies.
From the way we order pizza to finding a life mate, Internet culture has transformed countless aspects of contemporary life. Now, even death is undergoing a digital makeover. The idea that we might live forever thanks to our immortalization in cyberspace is encouraged by celebrity deaths such as David Bowie’s. Like the inscription on a medieval emperor’s mausoleum, Bowie’s image, music, and history have been carved into the marble of the Internet, accessible by everyone for all eternity (or for as long as the links keep working).
But if this level of cyberspace immortality is only possible for mega celebrities, dying online is open to anyone willing to share his or her end with the blogosphere. Laurence Scott, in his book The Four-Dimensional Human, a novelistic examination of the existential impact of the new technology on the human condition, cites the example of an acquaintance who kept an online diary charting her death from cancer. He notes that the “public intimacy” of the blog form is well suited to a journal of ill health and terminal decline.
This dissolving of the barriers between the public and the intimate is death’s vital new upgrade. In the privileged, ultra-materialistic West, as Laurence Scott points out, death has acquired a “neurotic separation” from daily life, and this separation has been identified as part of the “malaise of the late twentieth century.” But thanks to the internet, death might be losing some of its pariah status.
Even if the notion of dying online in full view of millions of strangers lacks appeal, we can still have an active social media afterlife, and our own digital mausoleums. There are organizations willing to help us maintain an immaterial presence long after our physical demise. An app called LivesOn promises that “When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting.” Developed by a London ad agency, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, one of the company’s creative partners told the Guardian, “It offends some, and delights others. Imagine if people started to see it as a legitimate but small way to live on. Cryogenics costs a fortune; this is free and I’d bet it will work better than a frozen head.”
The Digital Beyond is equally keen to maintain your digital legacy: “We’re the go-to source for archival, cultural, legal, and technical insights to help you predict and plan for the future of your online content.”
So it seems that even death—how we die and how we view the deaths of others—has fallen into the infinite maw of the Internet. We need no longer quake at the thought of passing unremembered and our achievements, no matter how modest, going unrecorded. Our digital legacy is at least assured. And although our physical remains may turn to dust—the life eternal can be forever enjoyed in pixels, hyperlinks, and tweets.