A few weeks ago, I went to my own funeral. Or at least a simulation of my own funeral. I was sitting in an auditorium, alone except for a trim young man in a black suit, who walked up to a lectern and began speaking. “Good evening,” he said. “We are here to honor the memory of Doree Shafrir. Doree was a beloved friend, daughter, and wife. Our thoughts go out to her loved ones on this day.”
It was more than a little jarring, sitting there listening to this guy talk about me. Doree, he said, was “committed to her work, to social justice and to literature. She showed support to women she’d never even met, and gave platforms to voices of color.” He went on like this for another minute or so, talking about how I’d passed away and “left an empty place” in the hearts of my loved ones. Next, there was a video — all my tweets, scrolling on a huge screen in front of me — and it was only then that I truly started recoiling. My legacy was going to be my tweets about Justin Bieber’s fling with Bronte Blampied, my neighbors' love of Project Runway, my excitement about wearing a dress with pockets to a wedding.
I was at LACMA, the LA County Museum of Art, for an interactive exhibit put on by an organization called the Hereafter Institute, which was started by the 34-year-old artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo. The pitch was vague: The Hereafter Institute, I was told, “evaluates a person's digital afterlife using new technologies.” The “funeral” was the culmination of a half-hour personal tour through a series of exhibits meant to inspire reflection and conversation on our digital afterlives.
What would someone who doesn't know me infer about who I was based solely on my online presence?
For centuries, people have been trying to figure out how to achieve immortality — or at least extend their lifespans. Today, billionaires like Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel, and Sergey Brin are spending part of their fortunes on research that they hope will allow them to extend their lifespans. Perhaps the most radical ideas are coming out of Dmitry Itskov's 2045 Initiative, an organization that hopes to eventually be able to meld human heads with robot bodies. For the non-billionaires among us, digital immortality will have to do.
I've long been fascinated by the posthumous digital lives of others, but I'd never really thought about what would happen to my own self-created online presence after I'm dead — and more important, how it could be manipulated, even by people with the best of intentions. As someone who likes to maintain a modicum of control over her online presence (don't we all?), this notion started to feel more than a little bit scary. What would someone who doesn't know me infer about who I was based solely on my online presence? At least when I'm alive, my social media is a constantly updated, organically changing thing; once I'm dead, it's all frozen in amber. Would that same online presence serve as a comfort to people who knew me, a kind of poignant memorial? Or, most terrifyingly of all, would no one care?
I'm not proud of the fact that when I hear about a celebrity dying, I check to see what their last tweet was. I obsessively read the Last Message Received Tumblr, which posts the last communication (usually texts) that people got from exes, or family and friends who died; the ones that are the most painful to read are the mundane ones from friends who were then killed by drunk drivers.
In 2016, the human condition is marked by existential despair in thinking about being remembered for a few lackluster, dashed-off tweets and silly photos.
These transmissions can appear cruelly unremarkable, but after death, even the most ordinary dribs and drabs of communication feel poignant to their loved ones. Like the Hereafter Institute's project, the Last Message Received is saying: You matter. You matter, and the world you lived in matters, and the people you loved — they matter too.
Still, I can’t help but think I'll want to keep everything away from the prying eyes of people like me when someone I’m close to dies.
Aren't we really just expressing anxieties about our own mortality when we voraciously consume the digital afterlives of others? When I think about it in this light, I'm more forgiving of my morbid, voyeuristic habit. If there is an upside to my obsession with these inadvertent social media memorials, it's that they have made me more aware of the permanence of my online presence, which, in the moment, can seem deceptively ephemeral. In 2016, the human condition is marked by existential despair in thinking about being remembered for a few lackluster, dashed-off tweets and silly photos. What if the last thing I ever tweet is a complaint about how much Time Warner Cable sucks? And so, whether we like it or not, life now requires no small degree of constant self-examination about our own legacies, online and off.
When I arrived at the entrance of the Hereafter Institute's exhibit, I was greeted by a young blonde woman (an actor, I later learned) in a lab coat, who began by asking me a series of questions about my online presence, including which social networks I had accounts on and which dating apps I’d used. I was left, by that simple exercise, with the uncomfortable knowledge that my digital legacy goes far beyond a bunch of photos on Instagram. It’s a LinkedIn profile where I’ll always be working at BuzzFeed, a Clue profile where my next period is always just a few weeks away, my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify updating until the end of time. I sat there wondering if my Apple ID would exist forever and if new episodes of Who? Weekly would keep downloading well after I was gone.
Then I stood on a platform while another Hereafter Institute guide took a 3D scan of my body — a scan I would later see animated at my "funeral" — and led me to another building at the museum, where there exhibit continued. There, I saw a record player on a stand where tweets by a man named Fernando Rafael Heria Jr. scrolled on a black screen. (I later found out he had been hit by a car and killed in 2010 while riding his bike in Miami; he was 25.) "Ever wanted to kick someone in the throat?" said one tweet, from March 20, 2010. "Fernando Rafael Heria Jr. shared a link: Brian Piccolo: Thursday Night Criterium Series," said another from March 25 of that year.
Next, I was led over to a different part of the same room, where I put on a virtual reality headset and found myself engulfed in the separate worlds of three people who had died. It was like a video game, with voiceovers by friends and family (and in one case, a reading by one of the deceased). Barcia-Colombo explained that his intention was to create a memorial to the dead that would allow people a small window into their lived experiences.
A few days after I went through the exhibit, I spoke with Barcia-Colombo by phone. “I was really interested in this sort of bizarre thing that’s happening now, where people pass away on the internet and there’s no real virtual practice put in place for what we do with this data,” he said. “I've had friends that have passed away, and yet people don't really know, and they still wish them happy birthday. Or people tweet after they've died because they've set up auto-tweeting. I thought it was a really sort of interesting time in our culture, and our conversation about death is really changing.”
“At some point there's going to be more people who've passed away on Facebook than there are alive people on Facebook.”
Last year, Facebook instituted a policy that allows you to designate a person to maintain your Facebook page after you die; your page lives on, but is changed to a “memorial” page. But what happens when that person dies? And so on? “At some point there's going to be more people who've passed away on Facebook than there are alive people on Facebook,” Barcia-Colombo said. “What is that going to mean?”
We don’t know the answer to that question yet. But what does it mean when even the most off-the-cuff content that we produced when we were alive has the potential to become a posthumous representation of ourselves? It’s exhausting enough to maintain a digital presence while we’re alive. Now are we expected to also be mindful of how our digital selves will be perceived after death?
Today's teenagers are enamored with pointedly ephemeral social media like Snapchat, where posts disappear quickly and (seemingly) forever, and maybe they're onto something. Maybe the next generation is so conscious of digital legacies that they've decided not to create one at all. But I'm too far gone, I think, to make my social media presence disappear; I am a self-archivist by nature, and erasing everything is scarier to me than the idea that someone might piece together a contextless version of me after I die.
All of this awareness adds another complicated layer to the notion of the digital self — one that a quick perusal of my Twitter feed tells me I am definitely not ready for. We may not be sentient beings in death, but whether we like it or not, we will continue to exist long after our bodies are dead and gone.