The Future Of

Life and Death on Social Media

Episode Summary

Media expert Tama Leaver discusses the ethics of online profiles pre-birth and post-death.

Episode Notes

Maintaining social media profiles of dead people and creating social media profiles of human fetuses raises many ethical questions.

In this episode, Jess and David are joined by Associate Professor Tama Leaver, from Curtin University’s media school, to discuss the practices and viewpoints regarding social media pre-birth and post-death.



Curtin University supports academic freedom of speech. The views expressed in The Future Of podcast may not reflect those of the university.

Music: OKAY by 13ounce Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported — CC BY-SA 3.0 Music promoted by Audio Library

You can read the full transcript for the episode here.

Episode Transcription

Jess: This is the future of where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better. I'm Jessica Morrison.

David: And I'm David Blayney and today we're exploring online identity before birth and after death.

Jess: That we can read a Facebook message supposedly posted by a deceased person sounds a little creepy, but there are apps and chat bots that actually create social media posts post-mortem. To discuss the ethics and the future of this trend, with us today is Associate Professor, Tama Leaver from the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin University. Thank you for joining us.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: It's my pleasure to be here.

Jess: So firstly, is social media blurring the line between life and death?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Social media is exacerbating the fact that posthumous material sticks around. We've always blurred the line; I mean we've always recorded what people say and it's always been available after they've passed away in many different ways. But I think on social media, because that material is more animated or more active perhaps – and because it's often driven by algorithms and bots, not just by what you happen to do there and then – the potential for that material to resurface or re-articulate in particular ways after you have passed away is much, much higher.

I think people forget that a lot of what we see on Facebook, for example, isn't live. You don't see what someone wrote two minutes ago; you might see what they wrote three weeks ago because the algorithm says that's the best time to see it. If you happen to pass away in the interim, that makes it pretty creepy, but it's not untoward, and it's not something that's that strange. But at the same time, it's something we're unfamiliar with and we do need to think about a bit.

Jess: I suppose we're warned be careful what you post on social media, because it's not just a matter of deleting it these days – it does stick around.

David: Usually we're not told to be wary about it sticking around after we've died. Usually it's in the context of how it can hurt us when we're alive.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: I think the real challenge is we're not told anything about what happens to our stuff after we pass away. Most people struggle to remember to have a will, so the idea that we're going to spend any time thinking about our social media traces after we pass away is laughable at best for most people. And yet, it is a very real issue.

I think we've seen enough cases in the world where that has posed a real problem; where, for example, people have passed away, relatives have been convinced that the evidence of what's caused that – especially if someone's taking their own life – is on their Facebook profile or on their messages or on their Instagram, private messages. And for the most part they've not been able to get access to that, and that poses a real challenge. So the ethics and the rules around who can access what posthumously actually matter a great deal.

Jess: How is this trending? I mean, what are the social media giants – if we'll call them that – where are they trending towards this and what are they doing?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Okay. So, looking into the future, I think so far we've got what we might call software-engineered solutions. Google, for example, has the most obviously software-engineered solution. They have what's called an inactive-account manager, which means that if you haven't logged in for a certain period of time – and the minimum amount of time you can set is three months – then you can set a bunch of rules for what should happen to your stuff. So, you might want someone to get a download of all your YouTube videos; someone else gets access to your Gmail account; someone else gets the choice as to whether your location history should be kept or deleted from your maps, for example.

But three months is a really long time. I don't know if anyone's ever managed an estate posthumously, but the big questions about what you need to do with people's stuff come up within a week. Your email has the passwords to all of your financial accounts, for example, or something equally important. Waiting three months is not really an option if you're managing an estate. So, it's a software solution that makes sense, cause three months seems a reasonable period of time as a minimum, but in the real world, that really doesn't help that much.

David: There was a German case where a family was trying to gain access to their deceased child's Facebook account after they had taken their own life. If a child hasn't – if anyone, I should say, has not given permission for their estates to access their social media, under what circumstances should they be able to?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Well, should, as a difficult question. It's whether that 'should' is a moral, an ethical or a legal. In legal terms, Facebook would argue that the right to privacy doesn't extinguish when you pass away. So they would say whatever your privacy expectations were when you're alive, that should persist. And that's been a hard line that they've taken, and most software companies do. Because, what they don't want to do is to become legal arbiters where they have to figure out what the right moral or ethical question is, they've taken a hard legal stance.

In terms of ethical access, you would imagine any circumstances where there's a reasonable expectation that that material would reveal, especially to immediate family, something important about the circumstances in which someone passed away, that seems like a no-brainer. But it does come up against the law. And it's also the case where you would think that parents who are legal guardians should have that access, but that also is not true. So in the same way that most social media accounts are not supposed to let you have access until you're 13, that law also says the parents don't have a right of access in the same way.

Jess: In terms of looking forward though, I mean in about 80 year’s time, the statistics they're predicting are there could be about 4.9 billion dead users on Facebook. How is that going to be managed?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Facebook's a really interesting example because they have probably the most developed response so far, which is they do allow you to memorialise an account. So, if Facebook knows that someone's passed away, they can basically shift that to a memorialised setting, which means that it will respect whatever the restrictions were on that account when you're alive. It might mean that all of your close friends are allowed to post on your wall; people are allowed to post pictures. So, profiles can become spaces of significant memorial and that's, as people are more dispersed across the globe, that's a really important space for a lot of people.

David: A bit like, say, leaving a flower on a grave head.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Absolutely. And, and for some people it is that simple. They will post an annual picture, either on the day that they died or more often their birthday, and remember them that way. And that's for many people are really important solution.

But what will be interesting is that the only people usually that can access that account are the people that could see it while you're alive. So eventually, everyone that could access your account will also have passed away, so we will have this weird sort of thing where Facebook will be the arbiter of a lot of memorialised spaces that no one can actually see anymore.

David: Like how you die the second time when no one remembers you.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Yeah. And I've got a running theory that eventually Facebook will realise there's money in that. That it'll become like 'Who-do-you-think-you-are-Facebook', because you can go and access your ancestors' accounts, eventually, if it sticks around that long.

Jess: That is very future looking. You said Facebook's quite advanced in terms of memorialising pages; what are other sites doing? For example, Instagram – what are we seeing there? Are there any trends for the future?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Well, what one hopes that the future will look different to what they currently do. Currently, Instagram will respect a request to delete an account after someone's died, or they will lock it. It doesn't tell you that it's a memorial account, but it will simply mean that no one else can have access. And if that material is public, it stays public, but nothing else can change. It's pretty blunt, it's an all or nothing kind of choice.

And I would suspect that going into the future, as more and more people pass away and their stuff remains on social media, we will get more and more nuanced responses. But certainly Instagram does not have a nuanced response right now, and nor, to be fair, do most other platforms. This is a relatively new question. It's not something, sadly, that is considered when platforms are designed, and it's usually only when there's some sort of controversy that they ever put the time in to design features that address what happens when a user dies.

David: When I die, I'll be dead – I'll be dead from the neck up, dead from the deck down, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Why should I care? Who cares? It doesn't affect me. I'm dead. There's no Facebook in ... wherever. So why should I care?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: I guess that the answer to that question to some extent then is, do you want a grave? do you want to be buried? do you care what happens to your remains? Because the question of what happens when we die isn't a question for us; it's a question for the people that we leave behind, and it's how they respond and how they want to respond to the memory of us.

And I think that's where Facebook and other companies really don't quite know how important they are because they are the spaces in which we access most people when they're alive. We would expect that that's a space that we can still use when they pass away. And yet that's a level of nuance and intimacy that those companies are really struggling with. And it's not just Facebook, it's anywhere that you might create content that you share with someone that you expect that they will still be able to access at a later point in life.

Jess: I suppose it's just another side of grieving. I mean, it's different for so many different people. With the presence of social media and how prevalent it is in our lives, it really does sort of dictate how we grieve, doesn't it?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Absolutely. And in many ways, we see that that's being configured in different ways. Because people's grieving practices in the physical world is quite different. And sometimes that can come to conflict in memorial pages. So, if you know someone that's passed away and one of their friends is posting something very religious, that's probably very well intended; but if you knew that that person was an atheist and did not want that sort of material on their page, you can see these weird little discussions emerge where people are like, is that appropriate? Because that's not respecting who they were when they were alive.

That can be a really difficult thing. You know, if it's at a wake, it's usually done when you're drunk and that sort of conversation goes away. But on a memorial page it sticks around. And do you really want that sort of material on them? Memorial pages is a difficult question, but we are wrestling with the best way to respect the dead in these spaces.

Jess: We've touched a lot on um, social media and identity there and what happens when we pass away. But it's not just social media, it's also passwords, email accounts, bank accounts – what's the future looking like in that sense?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: I think for banks at least it's relatively well-regulated – we know what can and can't happen there. But for any industry that has emerged recently, then we need to bake these questions in at the beginning. We need to build accounts and platforms that allow for the whole of life setting, and to have good answers as to what happens when someone passes away. Even to have good practices for recognising that.

Do you need a death certificate, for example? Facebook used to require a death certificate before it would even entertain this conversation, and you used to have to go through an American court to present that death certificate. Thankfully that's not as much the case, now; they do have something called a legacy manager where you can nominate people while you're still alive, who can certify that you've passed.

Jess: What happens if you haven't done that prior to passing?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Then you still have to go through an American court and present a death certificate.

Jess: Wow.

David: I've basically encountered this issue. There was an obituary published in the local paper, and they accepted that to memorialise a page, but I'm sure to delete a page it would require quite a bit more.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Yeah. Facebook used to more actively seek out evidence and act on that, but because there are so many people with the same name, and because Facebook accidentally killed some of the wrong people effectively on their own platform because they had exactly the same name, they don't tend to do that as much anymore for fear of getting it wrong – and it's a realistic fear.

David: So their approach has mainly been reactive. They haven't sort of been thinking about this long-term from when it was first created. They've just been responding, "Oh no, people are worried about ... (inaudible)".

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Yes. This issue first came up because Facebook has a recommendation system where it suggests new friends, and people are going, "Why are you suggesting that person? I know they're dead". So that was actually the first instance where Facebook had to go, "Oh, our algorithms are dealing with both the living and the dead and we need to start addressing that".

Jess: But identity isn't just when you pass, it's also the unborn. So, if we can touch a little bit on that as well ... what about the online profiles of the unborn, or even children? Should parents be creating social media footprints for those who can't really give their consent?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: It's a fantastic question and not one that we have good answers to yet, other than we need to think about it a lot better. Most parents, certainly for me and my generation, we don't have good examples of our parents having had to wrestle with these questions, so we're making it up as we go along.

It's certainly true that it's almost a social-media ritual now to post the first ultrasound photo. It's a moment of great joy and great sharing, but at the same time, it means that often the social media presence of someone starts before they're born, which is a kind of a strange thing to think about, especially when we're posting to platforms that make a living by building 'ghost' profiles.

As soon as an ultrasound is posted, we know that Facebook basically starts an entry expecting to fill in the details of that person over life. Because it's not just active account holders; it's knowing the people that that account holder cares about that actually matters in terms of selling. There's some great experiments done that show how radically your advertising changes within a minute of Facebook or Google knowing that you're pregnant.

Jess: Oh yeah, it absolutely does. And I think we know that from all different stages of life. You post an engagement picture, well then you're getting advertising around weddings, et cetera, et cetera. So I mean, and not just the unborn. For example, I've come across a mummy blogger who has refused to release the names of her children, for the fact that she'd like to protect them for when they're older in life. Are these things that may be ... not to criticise anyone, but people should be maybe thinking about in terms of their children and maybe they're not giving consent when they're 18 that mum's shared all these really embarrassing stories about them.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Absolutely, and I do think we need to think about that more meaningfully. One of the things that happens when you have a kid in Western Australia is you get handed this huge purple book with all of the growth norms, all of the things about immunisation, all of the contact people in terms of health professionals and things to think about – there's lots in there. And one page that says, "You are going to almost certainly post pictures of your kids online. Have a quick think about your privacy setting; have a quick think about who you want to be able to see that photo and whether that really needs to be public, or whether you think that your accounts should be just directed at close family and friends".

Something that simple I think would be really meaningful and useful. Eventually we'll have best practice. We'll have normalised ways of having this discussion. But even today, if I take my kids to a birthday party, some parents will be snap-happy and all of those photos will end up on Facebook; others will be really privacy conscious and not want photos of their kids, and sometimes those discussions can be quite tense at a kid's birthday party.

David: In the future are we going to be having a chatbots with unborn children, or chatbots with dead people? Actually, probably more likely dead people, that sort of thing. What direction are we heading and how fast are we pummeling towards it?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: If we go back to thinking posthumously, we do leave a lot of traces behind, and for something like a chatbot or a system that's powered by voice, if you've got 500 voice recordings, you can pretty much build something that will sound like that person's voice. If you've got a really detailed history of their life, and instead of reading their life as a book or a series of letters or a series of posts, you could pretty much design – and companies are designing – interfaces where you can ask someone who's passed away to tell you the story of their life in their voice.

Now, that's not artificial intelligence, but it certainly feels like it. If you get a meaningful response to a question from a dead relative in a computer interface, it feels like an intelligent response, even if it's just activating recordings.

So, we're at the infancy of those sorts of tools, but I think as more and more of our stuff gets left behind on social media, the value of adding it together, collecting it, and that being actually a really significant part of history is increasingly the case.

Jess: So it's really a growing space in terms of what it's going to be like for when we pass, but also for the unborn generations, isn't it?

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: Absolutely. I think if you're being born today or even if you're dying today, the questions of what happens to your stuff on social media is something that needs more thought and more research.

Jess: I think that brings us to the end of our discussion today. Thank you very much for coming along Tama. It was really interesting. Lot going on in this space.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: A lot going on, a lot more to happen.

David: Kind of scary, but also very exciting as well.

Associate Professor Tama Leaver: The future is always exciting. If it's scary, it's cause we haven't got good answers yet.

David: You've been listening to The Future Of – a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you have any questions about today's topic, get in touch by following the links in our show notes.

Bye for now.