The mass adoption of social network sites includes, as a natural consequence, the growing presence of profiles representing individuals who are no longer alive. However, the death of a user does not result in the elimination of his or her account nor the profile’s place inside a network of digital peers. Indeed, the fact that friends use a user’s profile page, post mortem, to say last goodbyes, share memories, and coordinate funereal arrangements is well known, if not frequently discussed. Death plays an increasingly significant role, then, in the experience of social networking. More broadly, the entwining of online and offline experience highlights the importance of thinking about digital representations as things that might well survive their owners or referents.
Focusing on death highlights three important themes for social networks and the representation of identity for their users:
Embodiment concerns the way that data objects and digital representations “stand for” human bodies. It encapsulates issues of access, issues of ownership, issues of management, issues of presence, issues of personhood, and issues of participatory status, both at the technical level and at the social.
Representation invokes the traditional considerations of online identity, the presentation of self, and the crafting of acceptable personas as well as consideration of the ways in which records are created with specific purposes and representations in mind. Representation relates to embodiment in that it speaks to the relationship that holds between the data object and the human body, but it incorporates too the active, purposive, strategic practices of re-present-ing, that is, of making something present again, with particular ends in mind.
Temporality concerns the notion of “lifecycles” as it has been applied in system development—the circumstances under which digital systems come into being, are put to use, and are taken out of service. The life of a user and the life of that user’s data are frequently not the same, an issue particularly acute when considering the continuation of dead user profiles in SNS.