Meeting and Preserving Social Media’s ‘Digital Dead’: Interview with Philosopher Patrick Stokes

As our lives become more entwined with the internet, so too do our deaths. When we die, our ‘digital flesh’, the uncollected artefacts we users of online services amount throughout our lives, become ‘digital remains’—nebulous ‘corpses’ distributed across systems and sites. Some of these remains, such as spam folders and search histories, are analogous to fingernail clippings or the contents of a junk drawer. They are certainly linked to us, but—by virtue of how relatively little of our identities they represent—are of minimal moral concern. Others, however, like our Spotify libraries, MMORPG characters, YouTube videos, and social media accounts—which (for better or worse) represent significantly more of who we are and have been—may be more precious. 

The phenomenon of ‘digital remains’ has spawned numerous philosophical inquiries, some of the most comprehensive of which have been written by Deakin’s own Patrick Stokes. In Digital Souls: a Philosophy of Online Death (2021), Patrick discusses the ontological nature and moral status of digital remains as significant material instantiations of deceased persons.

Although these materials do not afford us genuine immortality, they are—as he puts it elsewhere—a ‘more than metaphorical but less than literal’ extension of our bodies: unique and intrinsically valuable representations of unique and intrinsically valuable lives that, he argues, ought to be preserved’ (Rutledge 2020). 
 
As someone who is disquieted by the idea that my social media accounts might continue to ‘represent’ me after I die (and who is reluctant to post to them for this reason), I was intrigued to sit down with Patrick to discuss the role of death and the dead in contemporary social media and the role of social media in contemporary death, beginning with how digital remains can be harmed. 

L: In what ways can this occur? 

P: Digital remains are much like physical remains in many ways. For one thing, they can be lost or destroyed—through deliberate deletion, certainly, but also through server failure, accident, format obsolescence, or platforms going out of business. They can also be inadvertently ‘buried’ by the format itself: every time you post something on the social media profile of someone who has died, you’re unwittingly pushing their own posts further down the page until they become practically invisible. But, like corpses, they can also be subject to various forms of degradation. We’re getting increasingly good at recycling digital remains, whether through deepfakes and CGI re-use of old footage or AI-driven chatbots based on the digital traces people have left behind. But some of these uses could be exploitative, or degrading, or they could even be ways of replacing the dead themselves. 

L: You’ve said that the only decision you’ve made in preparation for your own digital death is the decision to never delete your tweets. Is there a moral imperative at work here?

P: Honestly, it’s not a moral decision, I just feel like I don’t want to lose my old tweets! It’s more a matter of temperament than principle I suspect, like people who keep old journals versus those who throw them out. Because people have that difference in attitude (and some people think, not unreasonably, that it’s prudent to remove things you’ve said in the past from public view), sometimes I look at old tweets where I’m responding to tweets that have been deleted, and I have no idea what on earth I was talking about. And that experience points to an important limitation of ‘digital remains’ as an analogy: they’re co-productions between users, and so any one set of digital remains contains ‘bits’ of other users, and the privacy and re-use concerns therefore impact on other people in a way that’s not quite the same for corpses. 

L: Should we aspire to be more mindful of our (and others’) inevitable digital deaths as some philosophers have argued we should be of our inevitable biological ones? 

P: I think in some ways, preparing for digital death is just an extension of preparing for death as such. Actual preparation for death as a practical matter, whether that’s nominating a digital legacy contact or writing a will, that doesn’t really take up that much time—what does take up time is what Kierkegaard called ‘thinking death into every moment’, living your life with an unspoken awareness of its finitude and uncertainty. And that’s something we can do online too. Tacitly asking yourself ‘is this really the best use of the limited time I have, in which death can strike at any time?’ is worth doing in the online and offline spaces. That’s why Kierkegaard called death the ‘schoolmaster of earnestness’.

L: Is there a risk that regarding our contributions to social media as objects for posterity might worsen the widely discussed problem of false, idealised, or otherwise performative self-presentation on these platforms? 

P: There are certainly lots of opportunities for narcissism and inauthenticity online, and if you see your entire online output as a sort of posthumous legacy you’re creating, that's probably going to get pretty unhealthy! But again, this is all continuous with what we do in offline contexts too. There’s a pervasive worry that we’re always presenting the best possible version of ourselves on social media, and that’s true enough. But we’re doing that most of the time in the physical world too. (And the online space really is just a part of the physical world, ultimately). I’m suspicious of the idea of ‘authentic’ selfhood in any case, but to the extent that our online selves are inauthentic, I’m not sure our offline selves are all that much less so.

L: Many commentators, from the cultural theorist Dominic Pettman to the comedian Bo Burnham, have described and critiqued the way that our consumption of algorithmically-arranged social media content results in troublingly asynchronous and modulating affect responses. By spending lots of time in these epistemic environments where we’re shown, to quote Burnham, ‘a little bit of everything all of the time’ (2021), we arrive at a state of affairs wherein we can go from ‘fuming about economic injustice or climate change denial [to] … giggling at a cute cat video’ in just a few moments (Pettman 2018:29). Do you think that such environments present challenges for engaging with the digital dead? Might engaging with the dead via social media unduly trivialise our relationships to them? 

P: As with many things, I think the internet amplifies more than it qualitatively changes things: distraction is nothing new, we’re just dealing with a lot more of it now. And when we’re dealing with death and the dead, life, as Rai Gaita once wrote, reasserts itself without shame. We find ourselves drawn back into the world by a sort of gravity of the living, and then we perhaps get ashamed to be laughing at a joke or marvelling at something trivial in the face of the enormity of grief. The internet certainly exacerbates that, particularly in the way it leads us to jump between completely different contexts and emotional registers in that rapid-fire way and also works against our capacity to dwell on any one topic for long. But it’s an old problem scaled up, rather than a wholly new problem.

L: You’ve argued in favour of the default preservation of digital remains. What changes or new evidence would you need to see to change your mind? 

P: Probably the big one is the environmental cost of data storage. Default preservation is a bit like biological immortality: even if you can overcome the conceptual problems with it, the resourcing involved in keeping everyone around forever while new people continue to be born quickly gets practically overwhelming. I argue that preservation of digital remains is what we’d call a pro tanto or ‘all things being equal’ duty: it’s a genuine duty, but it is also one that can be outweighed by other factors. And it could easily be the case that the costs of preserving the dead are simply too high. But it might also be that we can find less costly ways of preserving them too. It’s important to remember that the question of digital preservation is a really new one, and we’re still working out both norms and legal and technological responses as we go. It might be that the ways in which we ultimately preserve these remains will be a more inert form of archiving than simply leaving them online like we do now—which, ironically, might look more like what we do with physical remains.

Patrick Stokes (patrick.stokes@deakin.edu.au) is an author and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University specialising in 19th and 20th century European philosophy, the works of Søren Kierkegaard, death and remembrance, personal identity, and moral psychology. You can find a list of his published works here and explore his wellspring of never-to-be-deleted tweets here.

References 

Burnham B (2021) ‘Welcome to the Internet’ [song], Inside (the Songs), Imperial. 

Pettman D (2018) Infinite Distraction, Polity Press, Cambridge. 

Rutledge D (host) (5 July 2020) ‘The Philosopher’s Zone’ [podcast] The Digital Dead, ABC, Accessed 4 May 2022. 

Stokes P (2021) Digital Souls: A Philosophy of Online Death, Bloomsbury, London. 


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