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Digital death

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I just read on Twitter that somebody passed away.

He wasn’t a celebrity per se, but he was someone well-connected and well-respected in the community where he worked, and now my feed is filled with an outpouring of grief and fond memories from other people I follow who knew him. By all accounts, he was a tremendous, caring, beloved person. I never met him — I think I saw him at a convention once, but I wasn’t a fan per se, I just knew of him. I think I might have followed him on Twitter for a month or two, years back, but I probably unfollowed him along with dozens of others in an attempt to thin out my followees list.

Death on the internet is a weird thing. We, as a culture, haven’t learned how to deal with it fully yet. Whether it’s a public figure, or an online friend, dealing with the death of someone you knew purely through the internet feels somehow different. When a celebrity passes away, it’s obviously tragic, but somehow it’s easier to wrap your head around. The mental separation between “online” and “real life” helps us accept that the folks we see in media, other than online, exist in the real world, because they’re in those separate realms, just like we are. But, when people exist only on the internet, it’s somehow different.

It’s not even a question of the amount of information about that person. Consider someone you follow on YouTube. Maybe they vlog or play games or review something, but they’re likely a fixture in your life weekly, perhaps even daily. Think about a podcaster who speaks directly into your ear for hours every week, or a streamer who answers your questions or laughs at your jokes in real time. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in these people’s lives, to feel like these are real relationships, even though the relationship is really just fan and performer.

Psychologists call this “parasocial interaction,” and while it’s not limited to the internet, the immediate, constant nature of the web makes it a prime breeding ground for these kinds of “connections.” Because we’re hearing from a person so often, listening to stories about their lives and (what seems like) all of their thoughts and opinions, we naturally feel close to this person. Perhaps their work helped us get through a tough time, or has become part of our routine for years on end. But, even if we feel like we really know this person, I don’t think we’re consciously aware that they’re mortal the way we think about our real-world friends and family, or even celebrities.

Part of that might be that the “internet content creator” demographic skews very young compared to traditional media personalities. We’ll reach a point where it seems like these YouTube stars are dying at an alarming rate, but it’ll be years away — the same way music fans might be feeling in recent years as we’re losing more and more big names of past decades. We haven’t adjusted to our stars from the internet dying yet, because many of them are still young.

The other side of death on the internet is the more interpersonal relationships, the true two-way friendships we forge with people we’ve never met. I think that’s the scarier part to think about — I’m sure if my favourite YouTuber died tomorrow, someone who knew them in the real world would get the news out to their fans. But what about that friend from a small forum you visited for years? Will their family think to figure out their password, and post during that difficult time? Will they even know it existed?

There are ways we as internet users can prepare for this unfortunately certain point in our future (far away as it hopefully may be). A traditional will could include instructions and passwords for key accounts, and people who should be notified that might otherwise be forgotten. Social media sites do allow families to take action after the death of a loved one, such as Facebook allowing accounts to be “memorialized.” There are even services that will handle distributing your accounts to a person of your choosing after your demise. But, like any other aspect of planning for an unexpected end, that would require you to actually set it up, which never seems particularly pressing.

So, while hopefully it’s not something we have to start dealing with on a regular basis anytime soon, I think it’s worth taking the time to think about. Let the people close to you know which online communities you care about, tell the people you follow how they’ve impacted your life, and write down a few passwords and hide them away. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

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