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The widespread use of technology and social media is raising new questions about their role in mourning loved ones and about the disposition of our digital accounts after we die. News of celebrity deaths travels fast on social media, but is it insensitive to share the news of a loved one’s passing that way? And should we be leaving explicit instructions for our survivors about our online accounts? Kojo considers questions at the intersection technology and mortality.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on "Tech Tuesday." Our cultural norms around grieving and mourning losses, both of loved ones and those we've never met have been upended in the 21st century with Facebook memorials, Instagram posts from funerals, even tweets from beyond the grave. Some embrace this new landscape, bearing their feelings online and making provision for their own accounts after their demise.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhile others, well, aren't so sure, here to help us consider the ways in which technology is changing how we face mortality is Jennifer Golbeck. Jen Golbeck is a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, where she also serves as director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab, and she's occasionally a guest host on this broadcast. Good to see you again, Jen.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKGlad to be here.
NNAMDIEvan Carroll author and co-founder at the Digital Beyond, a blog about your digital existence and what happens to it after your death. And co-author of the book, "Your Digital Afterlife: When Flickr, Facebook and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?" She joins us from studios at WUNC in Chapel Hill. Evan Carroll, thank you for joining us.
MR. EVAN CARROLLThank you. It's my pleasure to be here.
NNAMDICandi Cann is a professor of Religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Corp at Baylor University and author of "Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century," joining us from studios at KWBU in Waco, Texas, Candi Cann, thank you for joining us.
MS. CANDI CANNThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Have you found out about the death of someone you care for via text, tweet or Facebook post? How did you feel about that experience? Jen, with several celebrity deaths in the news recently, let's start with the idea of mourning celebrities we feel like we know, on social media. To what do you attribute that phenomenon?
GOLBECKIt's interesting, because on social media, and reality TV, I think, plays into this too, we go from seeing celebrities in movies and then also maybe reading about them in tabloids to really seeing into their everyday lives, getting their internal thoughts and how they're experiencing life. And it's a way that we can feel, really, a kind of personal connection with them that was harder to do before social media. And so, when they die, it makes us feel like someone that we actually have all these personal insights to has been taken out of our lives.
NNAMDIThe flip side of the coin is how we react when someone we really do know, someone we really do love, passes. How are people sharing those experiences, and what potential tensions do they raise by doing so? First you, Jen.
GOLBECKYeah. There's a lot of them. The most common way we see this, especially on social media, is that if someone has a Facebook page and they die, that page often becomes a place of memorial and discussion. So people will come in, they'll post thoughts about the person, and a lot of that, obviously, happens as soon as someone finds out that their friend or loved one has died. But research has shown that actually, a lot of people come back, almost 40 percent of people come back months afterwards, and post thoughts sometimes on a birthday or an anniversary or just when something comes up.
GOLBECKNow, that can be a really beautiful thing and also a supportive thing for that community of friends and family. But there's also tensions that come up about the narrative of that person's life. So you can certainly imagine, say you have a younger person, and their parents have one view of that young person and their college friends or co-workers have another view. And there can be arguments that actually emerge about who controls that narrative and what's said in these online spaces.
NNAMDICandi Cann, same question.
CANNYes, I agree with Jen here, because I think it's definitely one of the more contentious aspects of these social memorials. I interviewed a widow once who said that she was frustrated because everyone focused on her husband's memorial page on the social network on Facebook. And she said that no one gave her any attention. No one sent her any messages, sent her any cards, and she felt like her position as a primary mourner had been kind of taken over.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Candi, when there are tensions that arise by doing this? What suggestions do you have for people who are trying to share a loss online without causing offense, without causing harm?
CANNWell, I think, there's a couple solutions. One is to actually memorialize the page, so that the narrative functions more like an obituary. Where it becomes kind of fixed in place and time and people can go and visit the page and remember the person and view the photos, but no longer actually actively post on the page. That's one solution. Some people, though, would prefer to continue to memorialize and continue to remember, together, the person. So, I think it's a generational thing, and I also think it depends on how you use the social media.
CANNFor me, for example, my best friend recently died. And her husband was mourning his wife's death, my friend, night and day for the first two weeks after her death. Which is understandable, but he did it all on Facebook, so every time I was at work, and I would check my Facebook page, I was confronted with this really painful loss over and over again. So, I'm not sure there is a solution, Kojo. I think it's something we're working out as we go on.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a "Tech Tuesday" conversation on Death and Tech: Grieving In The 21st Century with Candi Cann. She's a professor of Religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Corps at Baylor University and author of "Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century." Evan Carroll is an author. He's also co-founder at the Digital Beyond, a blog about your digital existence and what happens to it after your death. He's co-author of the book, "Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?"
NNAMDIAnd Jen Golbeck is a professor in the College Of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, where she also serves as Director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab. Call us. 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments. What do you make of the ritual of public mourning that has cropped up around celebrity deaths in the age of social media? Have you taken to Facebook to share news of a lost loved one? Or to remember someone you didn't know, but felt connected to? Tell us why or why not.
NNAMDICall us at 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow using the hashtag #techtuesday. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Candi, even before the online environment, cultures in the US and beyond have been reinventing, if you will, mourning, with new ways to keep memories close. What are some of the, well, lower tech ways people are doing this?
CANNWell, some of the lower tech ways, Kojo, I think one of the most popular ways has been the memorial tattoo. And this is something that we've definitely seen emerging in popular culture, and we're seeing it on TV shows about tattoos. As Jen talked about earlier, the celebrities, they've also popularized the practice of getting a tattoo. So, since most young people, their first loss tends to be a grandparent, we've noticed that, generally, the first memorial tattoo that one gets is actually in memory of a grandparent or a loss of a grandparent.
CANNSo, tattooing is one way. Also, tee shirt memorials. We're seeing these particularly in the borderlands and California and Florida and Texas. Some people attribute the tattoo memorials to gang culture losses. But I actually think it goes deeper than that. It might be more related to the tee shirts that we have of icons, like (unintelligible) or Elvis, such things like that. And I think mourning tee shirts just are another form of the traditional black arm band that people used to wear to identify themselves as one who's actually in mourning and grieving for someone.
NNAMDIIs there a void, either in our religious traditions surrounding death or in our cultural norms around it, that encourages people to pursue these alternatives? Or are we just generally creative, Jen?
GOLBECKI think whatever outlets we have available to us are places that we're going to express feelings, whether it's about mourning and death or politics or anything. And you and I have had this conversation before, Kojo, where people will sometimes say, this generation of young people is totally different. They don't have any sense of privacy, no sense of the private space, they put everything online. And I always say, you know, if the 60s had Facebook, the hippies totally would have been on Facebook.
GOLBECKThe anti-war movement would have been on Facebook. And so I think this is just one particular manifestation of the same thing. We're grieving. It's something that, on one hand, is intensely personal, but on the other hand, we want people to understand that we're, you know, in pain and we're going through this. And the black armband is something that's, you know, attractive, I think, to a lot of people, and so it seems a little dated if we do that. What's the modern way to do it? I think the tee shirts that Candi mentioned are certainly one of those things. And social media is where we spend a lot of our time, so it's going to manifest there, too.
NNAMDIEvan Carroll, often the Facebook page of someone who has passed is being turned into a kind of memorial by friends and by family, is it as unique and unusual as it may seem on the surface and what do you make of the practice overall?
CARROLLSo, Kojo, I believe that we're making a shift back to a more public mode for our grieving. And so, in the past recent years, I would say, that we've confined grieving to particular places and particular times. For instance, at the funeral or the wake or then also at the gravesite. But the interesting thing is that it's becoming more public again, through social media. And a personal experience of mine, when my grandmother passed a few years ago, the very first thing I felt I needed to do was to share that on Facebook, where my friends could know that I was in this time of grieving.
CARROLLAnd they could understand that and support me in the appropriate ways. And, you know, something that's really fascinating to me is the ability for the deceased to continue to play a role in their social network once they're gone. So, for instance, let's say that you and I did not know each other, but we had a common friend who passed away. And on the anniversary of their death, both of us posted on their page and we struck up a conversation and became friends. In effect, the deceased has now introduced the two of us, even though they are no longer here.
GOLBECKYeah, this is a great point. If we look again, just on a slightly higher level, there's a lot of research that shows that online support groups, whether it's for getting support because you're grieving someone who's passed or because you have a medical condition. You're going through depression or anxiety problems. It's extremely helpful to people to have those support groups online, even if it's total strangers. And so, this idea that Evan just mentioned of being able to go to this Facebook page, find a community of people who are going through the same kind of pain you are in mourning this person who has passed.
GOLBECKThat's something that social media has been doing, kind of, across the space of things people need help with, really successfully. So, it's not surprising to see us getting benefits from that when we're looking at these cases of people dying and mourning as a group online.
NNAMDII know in my own case, when my brother passed last year, I didn't really think of going to Facebook until there was an article that appeared in the newspaper in the country in which he died, Guyana, that misidentified him. And I knew he had a lot of friends here who would have read that article and therefore not realized that it was their friend who had passed. So I went to Facebook, put a link to the article, and then explained that this individual, who was misidentified, was in fact my brother. And it got a huge response from all of his friends here. So, it can be very useful in that regard.
NNAMDII think this is actually really important. And my story for you, kind of back at that, is that I was in a pretty serious relationship with a guy in college. And we broke up when we were still in college and I didn't really talk to him. And about 10 years after that, it turns out, that he died. And I found out 11 years after that when a friend had Googled him and seen an obituary that was in the paper. No one had told me. And it's not that we were close, but I certainly, you know, I was with that guy for a couple years.
GOLBECKI would have wanted to know. But it was just at the point where Facebook was starting to be a place that this was done. And I would have loved if someone had been able to share that with me, just so I would have known at the time because I would have sent his mom a letter or done something that it just wasn't appropriate to do a year afterwards.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here is Kurt, in Kensington, Md. Kurt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KURTThank you, Kojo. When my mom died four years ago it was incredibly helpful and practical for me as the only caregiver and only child to go to Facebook to let her circle of friends know and give them details that, you know, I just would not have had time to do as the one who was making all of the arrangements and, you know, trying to get in touch with as many people as I could. Facebook was really, really helpful with that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. I think it underscores the point that we've been trying to make here. Care to add anything to that, Evan Carroll?
CARROLLYou know, Kojo, the reason I think social media is so natural for us to talk about death is because it's the natural place we talk about life. And I always believe that whenever someone goes to your Facebook profile to remember you, it's because that Facebook profile is full of things that you have said. It's full of friends you have collected. It's full of photos that you've curated. And, in essence, it is a very real and very authentic obituary for who you are, in fact, much richer than any obituary to date has been able to accomplish. So I firmly believe that that's the reason it can be so effective as a tool for memorialization.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, if you've called, stay on the line. We will get your call when we get back. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. The email address, firstname.lastname@example.org or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, with your comment or question. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on Death & Tech: Grieving in the 21st Century, with Jennifer Golbeck, professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, where she also serves as director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab. Evan Carroll is author and cofounder at the Digital Beyond, a blog about your digital existence and what happens to it after your death, coauthor of the book, "Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?"
NNAMDIAnd Candi Cann is a professor of religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Corps at Baylor University and author of "Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century." Back to the telephones, here is Mary, in Fairfax, Va. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYHi. Thanks. Yeah, I was just -- this has been very interesting to listen to, but I think I'm sort of on the other side of the coin where I'm just wondering, can your guests comment on whether some of these social media sites have a mechanism for removing a deceased person's profile at the request of the family? For example, my grandfather passed away almost two years ago and his profile's still up there. And it's just -- I don't know. I just don't like it. I feel like it's creepy to have it still up there. And I'll listen to their comments off the air.
NNAMDIGlad you could bring that up, Mary, because Jen, Evan, Candi, Facebook, Google and other online services are navigating these waters as providers. And they have responded to the need for policies related to handling accounts after a death. What should people, especially, perhaps, people who don't want to live on online, be aware of when they -- when it comes to their accounts? What can Mary, and her family, do?
GOLBECKSo Facebook has a section dedicated to how you can have your profile handled after you die or how you can manage, take down or take over a loved-one's profile. So Mary should go take a look at that. It's pretty easy to find in the Facebook FAQ section. For people who are thinking about what should happen to their social media profile after they are gone, there's actually a lot of apps out there that can handle your Facebook profile.
GOLBECKI think Evan can probably talk more about those, but I'll say that my favorite one requires you to list some friends and if you haven't logged in for a while, your friends can independently confirm your death. And if three of them do then this app actually takes over and you can have it post whatever kind of messages you want. You can have a farewell message, you can virtually haunt people, which is something that they have suggested -- not me -- have messages sent out at different points after you've died. So it's an interesting way to leverage your social media profile.
CARROLLYes. There are -- to Jen's point, there are numerous services that allow you to do this. And so many that I don't want to name any of them in particular. However, basically all these services work in this way. So you go in and you specify what messages you want sent, whether these are emails or Facebook posts or Twitter posts or all sorts of different apps that do different types of messages. You set up the messages you want to send.
CARROLLAnd then they hold them until the trigger goes off. And the trigger can be anything from a dead man's switch, where -- much like a train operator has -- whenever you fail to respond to queries from that service, they will assume you are gone after a certain amount of time. Or, as Jen mentioned, what I refer to as a committee where you are, you know, if three of seven say you're gone or whatever the number's happen to be -- I think three of seven's a little light -- but then your messages will be sent out.
CARROLLAnd there -- like I said, there are numerous services that do this. And my -- the question I always ask about this is just because we can send these messages, should we send them?
NNAMDIWe got an email from Patrice, Candi Cann, who writes, "I lost my grandfather, who I loved very much. He was the center of my family. My uncle, his son, posted to Facebook that he passed before calling any of us. I found out via text from an acquaintance. It was very hurtful, but I felt I couldn't bring it up with my uncle because he'd just lost his father." You have some advice about this, don't you, Candi?
CANNI do. I do. I posted a -- kind of a tongue-in-cheek piece on Huffington Post about…
NNAMDIYou can find a link to that on our website, kojoshow.org, but go ahead.
CANNOkay. Sure. On -- about the internet etiquette and the do's and don'ts of internet mourning -- and I do recommend that people call the people that are intimately involved with the deceased, but I, you know, as one of -- I think Evan mentioned earlier -- it's sometimes easier and just simply more practical to post it on social media. So I think different people approach social media with different rules. And this is part of the problem of kind of navigating our way through this.
CANNAnd, Kojo, I just wanted to mention also Mary's call. You can memorialize a Facebook page. You simply need to get a copy of the death certificate and send it in. But this is also, I think, one of the difficult aspects of mourning online because these people come back and haunt us, as Jen put. My grandfather passed away several years ago. And he regularly invites me to play games with him on Facebook.
NNAMDIYes. There's somebody who wrote about that, Ingo, in Fairfax. "It does seem like social media needs to develop some moors around online mooring, because it seems to cheapen the process in a few ways." She mentions a few, but then she goes on to say -- he or she goes onto say, "When you post a note on a Facebook page or other social media site, the post becomes Facebook property. And Facebook can use it for commercial purposes."
NNAMDI"I suppose it's like people mining the obits for available condominiums in New York City, but people might not realize that their expression of sympathy will be mined by Facebook for data and advertising." Jen? It is.
GOLBECKThat is a very insightful comment from Ingo. Yeah, I mean, this is something that we're thinking about in all these different spaces. And so much of this conversation today, you know, going to Mary's call and Kurt's call and Ingo's point is, you know, as we get these new technologies that allow us to communicate in ways that are different than what we've been doing, it takes a while for society to catch up and figure out what's appropriate and what isn't. I mean, 10 years ago we were having long heated discussions about the etiquette of sending a thank you note by email instead of handwritten.
GOLBECKRight? I mean, maybe we still have some of those. Is it okay to notify family members about a death over Facebook? Some people are going to say yeah and some aren't. And then is it okay for Facebook to use a deceased person's page or expressions of grief for them to target ads to the grievers? Like that just feels really bad, but we haven't really figured out how to deal with it yet.
NNAMDIHere's Phil, in Bethesda, Md. Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PHILOh, thanks, Kojo. Apropos, during World War II people used to go to the Washington Post in the evening, as soon as the first edition was out, to get the real estate ads for apartments. This during the housing shortage. But the reason I called was because when I came to town during the Kennedy administration, the Washington Post prided itself on getting obits into the paper -- these are news items obits, not the paid ads.
PHILObits into the paper within 48 hours, within, by the second day after the death. Nowadays, the Washington Post runs obits a month or so later. My point is that the news -- the print media have given up their responsibility of serving people fast. And so now we have this social electronic media filling in for that very necessary need. But I miss being able to pick up the paper and read about recent deaths so I can call friends or go to the wake or whatever.
NNAMDIIt's a gap that social media have jumped in to fill. A point that I never thought of before and that may be one of the reasons why newspapers don't feel they need to get them in as quickly as they used to. Thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIOn now to Liz, in Silver Spring, Md. Liz, your turn.
LIZThanks. Yeah, I'm a minister. And I've participated on and off in a faith community that's online on a platform called Second Life. Second Life is a community that has avatars. And so, you know, you have, you know, this presence that walks around in this platform world. And there's a lot of different ways that people use it, including that a lot of people on Second Life are people who are disabled and -- or ill, sometimes mortally ill, and having trouble getting out of the house.
LIZAnd Second Life offers them another way to interact with the world. And one of the really astonishing experiences I had some years ago was going to a memorial service in Second Life for a woman who had been very, very ill and had subsequently died. And, of course, the only way any of us knew her was through her avatar. And her sister accessed her computer and brought her avatar back online so that she was present for a few moments. It was scheduled to happen. She was present for a few moments during the memorial service while were people were talking about her.
LIZAnd then she, you know, her avatar appeared and stood there. And it was so strange because it was as if she was there because this was the only way we had experienced her, was through this figure that was again there and then gone. And it was a really striking experience. So we're talking about mostly Facebook and Twitter, but there are these other ways that people get to know each other and then lose each other and then have strange opportunities to access each other once again.
LIZAnd it was, you know, it was kind of living out a fantasy. Because, of course, whenever we lose somebody we would wish to have them back. And maybe the way we conjure them most powerfully back is in a memorial service when everybody's thinking of the same person, everybody's talking about the same person at the same time. That's the most powerful experience we have of their presence after we lose them. And this was one step further, where she sort of appeared to us and then vanished again. I just thought that was, you know, an interesting alternative take on what you're talking about today.
NNAMDIInteresting is the word for it because some people might find it warm and inspirational, others might find it -- well, a little creepy. But, Jen, Evan, for those interested in an air of immortality, there are services, there are apps that let you schedule messages postmortem. How exactly do those work and how do people use them?
GOLBECKYes. I'll let Evan get into the details, but, yes, you can set these up, as we said before.
NNAMDIYeah, you mentioned that before.
GOLBECKYou can have a committee verify your death. And, you know, Evan had mentioned in the previous comment that, you know, should we do this or not is a question. And I don't know what it reveals about me, but I've got to start writing those letters because I have all kinds of things that I want sent to people. And I actually think if I would -- if I were to receive a message, whether it's an email or a Facebook post from someone after they died, you know, assuming they didn't have something terrible to say to me -- that I would really like that.
GOLBECKRight? That that's a -- this sort of final personal expression, that kind of closure that I think so many of us want. If I could just hear from them one more time I think it would actually be great to get something like that.
CARROLLYou know, I think it can go either way. I had the privilege of interviewing a lady by the name of Airdrie Miller. And Airdrie is the wife of Daniel (sic) Miller. He passed away a few years ago. And he was credited with coining the term digital executor. He asked that -- he was prolific blogger. And he asked that his final post be published on his blog after he passed. And in talking with her I -- we started talking about this notion of continuing -- for him to perhaps continue to send letters or continue to post after he passed.
CARROLLAnd she said, "You know, Evan, I've taken his urn and I've already moved it off the mantle and put it in the closet. Not because I don't love him and not because I don't want to remember him, but because at a certain point I need to begin to move on with my life and I need to begin to heal." So oftentimes these messages we schedule -- might schedule for once we're gone, could be unwelcome reminders of our passing.
CARROLLSo I personally don't have the answer as to whether we should do it or we shouldn't do it, but it certainly starts to violate the notion of being dead and gone. And as we start to think about being dead and present, what does that mean socially for us?
NNAMDICandi Cann, care to comment? If, you know, after I've passed my favorite basketball team happens to beat my son's favorite basketball team, can I arrange for him to have a message denigrating him 10 years after I've passed?
CANNWell, Kojo, I would say that I actually agree with both Jen and Evan on this very complicated issue. But I think the problem is that the dead then becomes present and absent. And that can complicate the grieving process. So this is, I think, the issue that we have to think about. But on the other side, like Jen discussed, I have a seven-year-old.
CANNAnd every year on her birthday, I write her a letter about all the things that she's done and all the things that I want her to know that I'm proud of. And -- because you just never know when your time may come, and I would like her to have this collection of letters one day of the things that I love about her and to see herself through my eyes. So I think social media can complicate things. It can be both good and bad. As far as the avatars, I think that's not that much different from a video message.
CANNNow, you can get a tombstone with a QR code and you simply scan it with your smartphone and you get a video message, a favorite song, a poem. But I think the problem is when the dead are both absent and present simultaneously. That can become very confusing.
GOLBECKI'm going to build that after-death trash-talking app.
NNAMDIThank you very much. You have -- you already have a customer. Here now is Steve, in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi, Kojo, thank you. I have a background in cultural anthropology. And it occurs to me in listening to the conversation and living through the death of my parents, my wife's family and so forth, that the -- one of the issues with social media -- and one of your panelists just touched on this -- is that if you look at most anthropological studies in most societies, even the most public rituals around death, such as people wearing black or the Jewish faith covering all the mirrors in their house and sitting Shiva.
STEVEThey only do it for a very specific period of time. And, A, there is no specific period of time with any of the social media, as pointed out. The second point is, is that everything that's public is designed to reintegrate the living back into society. So there's a level of interaction, whether it's -- for example, sadly, I have two friends who lost kids in their 20s in the last -- this summer.
STEVEAnd both of them went to their synagogues for dinners every night, a warm embrace It wasn't to make them feel more religious. It was to make them buoyed through this period and then reintegrate. But there's a closing to this, which doesn't mean you stop breathing. But the ritual realities actually seem to be helpful.
STEVEWhereas, when you make this all a part of Facebook and social media, as your folks have pointed out, it never ends. I just wanted to add this anthropological perspective.
CANNYes. I actually -- I believe that this is emerging on social media precisely because we don't have the time and space within society to mourn anymore. Most workplaces, I think, are giving between three to five days to arrange the funeral services, attend the funeral services, get estate affairs in order and then return to work. If you remember, Newtown, Conn., I mean, it was just two weeks after the shootings when the townspeople cleared away all of the memorial and said it was time to move on and heal. So I would agree with the caller. But I think the problem is emerging precisely because we don't have the time and the space within everyday society.
CANNAnd if you're not part of a traditional religion that observes a set mourning ritual, such as Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, then it becomes even more difficult to be able to mourn the passing of someone who dies.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, if you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. The lines seem to be filled so you may want to shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. If you have questions about how to handle plans for your online presence after your passing, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, as a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday and we're talking with Candy Cann about Death and Tech: Grieving in the 21st Century. Candy Cann is a professor of religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor University and author of "Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first Century." Jennifer Golbeck is a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. She also serves there as director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland.
NNAMDIAnd Evan Carroll is an author and co-founder of The Digital Beyond, a blog about your digital existence and what happens to it after your death, and co-author of the book, "Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?" Evan, one of the reasons for the protections that Facebook, Google and others have been trying to put in that may surprise some people is that there's value in our social media accounts and online assets. How is that value determined, and what, kind of, inheritance laws govern these accounts?
CARROLLWell, sure, Kojo. That's a very interesting question. And I will say this is an emerging issue of the laws. There's lots that we could talk about here. Speaking to the value of digital assets, there are really two types of value. There is an emotional value that's, you know, rather difficult to place a number on. But we also engage in activities online that provide financial value to us as well. You know, there are communities that are designed around selling handcrafted goods, like Etsy. Or we have individuals who might have advertising on their blog or they might be, you know, selling products on eBay. So those are -- those things are really easy to value.
CARROLLThere have been some studies where individuals have placed what they believe to be the financial value of their email accounts and other things that we might consider to have more emotional value. And the estimates come to -- that our digital assets on average might be worth about $35,000. Now, of course, when it comes to valuing things -- and any lawyer who's listening will agree with this -- it's all about, you know, who will pay what at what time. There's not necessarily a fixed number we can place on this.
CARROLLAnd the second part of your question related to laws that are emerging. So right now, we have eight different states in the U.S. who have adopted laws that relate to making sure a fiduciary -- that is, a personal representative or someone else appointed to handle your estate -- can access and control your digital assets. Now there are various permutations of those laws in existence. And we're likely to see more of them because of a recently approved Uniform Act from the Uniform Laws Commission that governs this issue.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Todd. My friend took his own life three years ago and his last communication was a post on Facebook that he was doing it. Immediately afterwards, his account was subjected to an endless stream of taunting posts. I've since learned that there are groups of people who do this on a regular basis. What types of safeguards do social media sites have to prevent this despicable practice? Jen Golbeck?
GOLBECKKind of none at this point, which is really too bad. And it's -- this is such an awful story. And unfortunately there are whole groups of people out there who find this kind of trolling amusing, especially in a situation like this. And I've just been writing about trolls for Psychology Today and getting their comments in response. But they -- research has actually shown that the people who do this kind of thing tend to be sadistic in the psychological sense. They enjoy inflicting pain on others. And this is the kind of time where they can do the most pain to the most people. There's nothing that can instantly be done to keep those sorts of comments from coming in.
GOLBECKBut like we talked about before, this person's next-of-kin, his family members, can contact Facebook to have the page shut down, have it memorialized. But there's nothing you can do kind of right away to keep those sorts of comments from coming in.
NNAMDIAnd Candi Cann, we got this email from David, who writes, "I appreciate the logistical advantage of social media for letting folks know of a friend or family member's death. I do not want my Facebook page to live on beyond me. Folks need to go on, work through their grief and move on. Like elsewhere on the Internet, I want the right to be forgotten." That's a right, Candi Cann, some people do want, don't they?
CANNYes, that's correct. And it's one of the big differences, I think, between social media, grief and obituaries. I mean, I think obituaries used to place people firmly in the past, right? They tend to write about a person in the past tense, in the third person. They package a narrative about their life story. And social media, I think, as a couple of people have pointed out, it can seem to be endless. So I can understand why they would write this. That's definitely, I think, a right that we should have. And so I think, Evan can point -- again, in his website, he points to some really valuable tools that people can utilize to appoint executors of the digital media estate.
CARROLLYes. So Candi's referencing some of the things you can do around planning out your digital will of sorts. And there have -- there are ways that you can authorize someone to be a digital executor as a part of your estate and to give them specific access to take these actions for you. And I believe the most important thing for an individual to do is to -- before they're gone, while they're still here, the folks listening to us right now -- take a moment, think about your digital presence. Think about the content you have there. Think about what it might mean to people in the future. And make a brief plan for what you'd like to happen. And then communicate that plan with your family.
CARROLLAnd there are all sorts of services that can help. You can put it in your will. You can do all sorts of different things, really. But most importantly, think about it, have that conversation.
NNAMDIOn to Roxanna in Fairfax, Va., Roxanna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROXANNAHi. I just wanted to say that sometimes social media can be very negative when it kind of ignores the deceased. I had a friend who died when we were 23. And about -- I found out a year later. There was no trace of him online. And the only thing said about him was from his university, a very generic -- we had a student who passed away. And to see that, to see this person that I cared so much about have so little impact on others was extremely hurtful.
NNAMDIThat, I guess, Jen, is the other end of the spectrum, when social media seems to ignore somebody who you care for and think should be considered more by other people.
GOLBECKI think that's right. And, you know, Roxanna's talking about a younger person. And so we're talking about a generation -- and even though I'm older than that, I kind of group myself with those people -- because we spend so much of our time and do so much of our communication online that, when there's silence there, it's a very loud thing to us. That nobody cares if we're not hearing anything. And I don't remember if it was Candi or Evan who had started earlier in the show talking about a widow who felt ignored because so much was being said on her husband's Facebook page, and she wasn't getting those sorts of messages.
GOLBECKWe can kind of feel the same way when we're looking to social media as a place for someone to please say something. And when there's nothing there, it does make us feel like no one's involved and no one cares.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Patrick, the second part of which he writes, "I'm also writing with a question or challenge. Is anyone on your panel able to defend the funeral selfie you discussed in your lead-up? I find the idea incredibly obscene. Indeed, I cannot believe this is even a thing. A funeral is not a time for vanity. As far as I'm concerned, all attention should be focused on the deceased and the mourners." I gathered, reading your piece, Jen Golbeck, that the funeral selfie is kind of like your pet peeve.
GOLBECKOh, the funeral selfies drive me crazy. So I will -- I certainly would not defend the funeral selfie myself. But you're talking about this piece I wrote for Psychology Today.
GOLBECKAnd I quote one girl's funeral selfie that says, I believe the exact quote is, "love my hair today, sad for the reason I'm dressed up #funeral." And it's just, like it hurts to even say it. It's so tasteless. And I wrote about this in my Psychology Today blog. And I think Candi had wrote about this in her Huffington Post article, too, just saying the funeral selfie is such a terrible thing because it's focused on yourself and not focused on your grief, but on just wanting people to pay attention to you because your hair looks pretty. And it's so disrespectful.
GOLBECKAnd I had one commenter who came in and said, "I don't really understand, like, what this -- why you think there's a problem with funeral selfies. If we're feeling bad, what's disrespectful about taking a picture of ourselves?" And so I don't think she had much of a defense of it. But she really didn't see why it was problematic to take a photo at a funeral to talk about yourself and what you were doing that day.
NNAMDICandi, is it...
CANNCan I jump in here, Kojo?
NNAMDIPlease do. I consent.
CANNOkay. So, Jen, I absolutely agreed with you at first, when I first started examining this phenomenon. And then I started thinking about it. My daughter at the time was six. And she had surgery. And she went in for her surgery and she came out. And the first thing she said when she woke up from major surgery was, "Mom, take a picture of me." And it was at that moment that I really realized, these young people are documenting their lives with photographs. And I began to really kind of rethink my whole approach to funeral selfies, because I started to think, this is a visual diary.
CANNThese kids are marking a really important moment in their lives. And that's what taking the photograph is. They're showing death is still important. It's still a relevant experience. Their self portrait's an attempt to interpret the meaning of death in their lives and their self-identifying as mourners. They're letting their friends know, through the selfie, hey, I'm grieving. Yes, it's a weird way to do it. And honestly, I don't relate to it at all. But after that experience with my daughter, I thought -- Oh, my gosh. I've taken pictures ever since she was a baby. And I've absolutely created this monster.
GOLBECKSo I'm envious of Candi's generosity of thought. I mean, I actually can see this in a way, that you could have someone who's truly grieving, especially if it's, you know, a younger person who tend -- they're the ones who tend to do this. I mean, we had a photographer at my grandfather's funeral and did a whole family self-portrait, which felt a little weird to me. But even if we allow that some of these are okay, I don't -- I just can't get to the point where it's respectful or documenting grief if you're posting about your hair.
GOLBECKSo there could be a way to take a personal photo and post it and have it be part of the online grieving process. But I think most of these funeral selfies tend to be very self-focused to the point of excluding the fact that people are grieving around them.
NNAMDIEvan, your take?
CARROLLJen, you've arrived at my position. I think it's all in the tone. It's all in the tone you take. If you post that, you know, I am remembering my grandmother today, sorry to see her go -- without the hashtag funeral selfie -- I think it's respectful. But if you say, look at my hair. So sorry for the circumstances, funeral selfie. I definitely think that that's a bit disrespectful. So I think it's all in the tone.
NNAMDISo, Evan, I'll start with you. As we navigate this new or at least changing landscape, what's your best advice for people in terms of how to do so?
CARROLLWell, Kojo, allow me to mention that earlier I referenced a gentleman by the name of Daniel Miller. His name was actually Derek Miller, and I do want to apologize for mis-recalling that information. But to my final thought for what people should do, I think you need to be aware that people will want to remember you via social media, via online mediums, once you pass. And I think, if you want to have a say in how that happens, I would encourage you to think about what your online memorial means to you and make sure you have the conversations with your family and those that matter most to you about how you would want to be respected online.
CANNI would say that the most important thing is to, as Evan says, to outline what it is that you want done after you die. And this is the real point, right? And we all die. I mean, this is the universal fact of life. So I think we need to be better prepared for this.
NNAMDIAnd, Jen Golbeck?
GOLBECKI think social media has given us this amazing way to stay in touch with people over time and space that we didn't have before. And that kind of community can be so useful and supportive. So take advantage of that when you're grieving. Find those people who are grieving with you and engage in that community because it'll make you feel better.
NNAMDII'll let Mindy in Baltimore, Md., have the last comment. Mindy, you have about 30 seconds.
MINDYOkay. So I just want to say one thing about all of this. I think that, you know, the Facebook stuff is great. My husband passed away six years ago and we were using CarePages and that was a wonderful way to give him, really, a good death. He was able to actually experience his funeral before he died, because so many people were able to reach out to him and let him know what they thought. But I want to leave one message. We don't deal with grief well in this country. And so what Facebook does is it does a wonderful memorial and then we go on. And people want you to go back to who you were. And I had young children. It did not help them in their community.
MINDYThey had no support from people because it's not the minds that we have. And I'd like to see something change in the way our social media handles this kind of stuff. That we do something about people's understanding.
NNAMDIOkay. Mindy, thank you very much -- thank you very much for your call, Mindy. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Jen Golbeck is a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Evan Carroll is author and co-founder at The Digital Beyond. And Candi Cann is a professor of religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor University. Thank you all for joining. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," drawing diversity. Graphic novels are more popular than ever, but some say they need to better reflect their readers. Then at 1:00, in with the new, how restaurant menus evolve and what to do when your favorite dish disappears. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at kojoshow.org.
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