A social network for the dead

Is it ever possible that the social network you use frequently will contain profiles of more dead people than that of living ones? And what challenges does it pose for someone who is trying to study the user behaviour of people on that social network? Is it ethical? Does it adhere to the basic tenets of doing ethnography? Your social network can afford to keep all our pages and data indefinitely. Living users will always generate more data than dead ones, and the accounts for active users are the ones that will need to be easily accessible. Even if accounts for dead (or inactive) people make up a majority of their users, it will probably never add up to a large part of their overall infrastructure budget. More important will be our decisions. What do we want for those pages? Unless we demand that the social network deletes them, they will presumably, by default, keep copies of everything forever. But there are a lot of questions surrounding passwords and access to private data that we haven’t yet developed social norms for. Should accounts remain accessible? What should be made private? Should next-of-kin have the right to access email? Should memorial pages have comments? How do we handle trolling and vandalism? Should people be allowed to interact with dead user accounts? What lists of friends should they show up on? T

hese are issues that we’re currently in the process of sorting out by trial and error. Death has always been a big, difficult, and emotionally charged subject, and every society finds different ways to handle it. In every place, culture, and technological landscape, we develop a different set of behaviour around these same activities. And it is this evolving behaviour, which poses great challenges when someone is trying to do study users on digital platforms. Death may appear to be an easier issue to deal with, if you keenly observe the different cultural sensitivities that come into play when people are expressing their opinion on religion, politics or other complex matters of the society. There are also issues related to user anonymity and state control. To add to the complexity, the ethnographer faces many methodological challenges like playing the dual role of participant-observer, contextualizing and arriving at normativity while conducting the research.

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