What happens to our digital life after we die?

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Dealing with the aftermath of death is traumatic and the act of clearing out a loved one’s belongings can be painful.

Most people find comfort in hanging on to a few treasured items.

Selina Ellis Gray

Selina Ellis Gray

But, with the advent of technology, clearing out the house is no longer enough.

Academics at Lancaster University have discovered that social media is not just changing the way we live, but also the way we approach dying.

It may seem an unusual study topic but researchers Dr Paul Coulton and Selina Ellis Gray have been analysing the ways in which mourning is changing in the modern world due to the increasing amount of personal data we leave online.

Dr Coulton, who has been supervising Selina’s investigation, says: “In today’s digital age, when we die we often leave behind a digital legacy.

“Relatives are no longer only considering what to do with books, tea sets, vases and toolboxes, but they are also thinking about online social remnants such as digital photos, videos, status updates and emails.”

He adds: “While these ghostly reminders online are enabling new types of mourning practices, they are consequently presenting a number of challenges to the traditional role of custodianship as these remnants of digital life cannot be placed within rooms or on shelves in quite the same way as a piece of jewellery or a lock of hair.

“These remains are searchable, discoverable and open to reinterpretation, so that the dead can return unbidden to haunt the living in unexpected ways.”

No stranger to the online world, the senior lecturer has a background as a game designer, programmer and hardware designer.

Designer Selina, 32, is currently doing a PhD “which inquires into the digital residue people leave behind in death.”

She’s now in the third year of her work and is so engrossed, she’s hoping that once her thesis is published she will be able to carry on.

Until the social media boom, the popular understanding was the public mourning was dropping off in the western world, with social and religious traditions no longer having such a uniform influence on the way we say goodbye.

But the research has shown that in today’s Facebook age, a new form of mourning has emerged in which people are turning to the web to post their sympathy messages, store their memories or express grief.

Selina’s research explores blogs about grief, memorial pages on Facebook, tributes on Instagram, shrines on Twitter, digital scrapbooks and support groups for the bereaved springing up in diverse and highly personal responses to loss.

She says the line between life and death has become a much more public event, with the last status updates and final tweets of victims of events such as the Colorado massacre becoming global news.

The researcher has documented how these online sites have become very popular with some getting more than 10 million hits and attract daily visitors who regard these places as a positive focus for their loss.

She says she has been shocked by the “sheer amount” of digital remains and adds: “There is a massive amount of stuff out there – digital remains – and I don’t think people are always aware they (the sites) are so public and the control they have over that.

“There really is a big question about ownership and control – and security – once things are posted.”

She hopes her research will have an impact on future technology design and also support services.

Dr Coulton says: “These changing responses to death – and the digital legacy we leave behind – are posing all sorts of new questions and challenges, not only for technology designers and professionals who provide bereavement support, but also for society in general.”

For further details about the work, go to www.digitaloss.net or follow @nina_ellis on twitter.