The Great Beyond

On social media there is a context collapse between the living and the dead

Full-text audio version of this essay.

We’ve come to terms with the knowledge that social media platforms consume and rewire both the mundane and the profound factors of our daily lives. They are interfering with political systems, inventing new careers, connecting global cultures, and gamifying our social interactions. Though it’s much less discussed, this reorientation of our lives does not end when we die. The natural consequence of social media giants attempting to consume every moment of our existence is that they now carry the responsibilities of being key mediators of our relationship to death. The social space articulated by social media doesn’t just shape and incentivize how we communicate with each other while alive. The platforms also foster a new kind of quasi-spiritual space that draws out the desire to keep communicating with those who have died while situating that communication in the public eye. Grieving and mourning are now intersecting with systems designed to incentivize engagement. Inevitably, this changes our experience of loss.

It’s been almost a decade since my brother passed away suddenly, while he was a college student. Since then I’ve been intimately attuned to the comings and goings of his Facebook profile. Though I’m far from his burial site and the family photo albums, don’t often speak to his friends, and I’ve lost the shirt of his that I once kept, I can always pick up my phone and scroll until my thumb hurts and get to the place where he used to be able to write back. His profile is a part of him that feels less frozen in amber; there’s still movement there, something dynamic. This is due largely to the continued communication and activity that has carried on there for years.

I can always pick up my phone and scroll until my thumb hurts and get to the place where he used to be able to write back

His profile is a “memorialized” account, something that occurs on Facebook only after a friend or family member makes the request and provides documentation of death. It means that nobody can ever log in as him again, and his account has been removed from the platform’s standard algorithmic recirculation protocols. On his profile, “Remembering” appears over his name, and just below, there is a message from Facebook with illustrated flowers that reads, “We hope people who love Alexander will find comfort in visiting his profile to remember and celebrate his life.” Facebook no longer announces his birthday, no longer shows tagged pictures of him in newsfeeds, and no longer prompts others to add him as a friend. Instead, his profile can be reached only by deliberate intent, through a kind of digital pilgrimage.

In the first few years after his death especially, his profile received a steady flow of public comments. There were “I miss you” and tribute posts, but other comments were more quotidian: a video-game release he would have been excited about, someone reporting that they were having his favorite drink, or someone sharing a throwback photo. Quite a few times, people posted to tell him when they’ve had dreams about him. It’s unknown how many private messages he is sent: Any such communication is inaccessible to other Facebook users, but I know that I, for one, have sent more than one desperate private message charged with the hope of a prayer into his inbox.

The portal that allowed people to communicate with him across distance in life continues to offer a shadow of that promise after his death. The page is now an archive that makes visible that impulse to continue communicating with the dead on social media, to a degree normalizing and socially validating spiritual practices that have largely been neglected as society has become more secularized. As sociologists Philip Mellor and Chris Shilling detail, modernity has traditionally sequestered death into privatized, isolated spaces. However, perhaps we are witnessing the pendulum swinging back. What was once hidden in the quiet of our own minds, before altars or in candlelit corners, or in private meetings with psychics, is now moving to a more centralized space.

Notably, nearly every visible post on my brother’s profile addresses him directly, in the second person exclusively. This mirrors practices seen on the social media accounts of dead public figures, whose accounts often receive a surge of posts postmortem. In fact, the final Instagram posts of beloved celebrities generally have dramatically higher engagement than the rest of their profiles. Chef Anthony Bourdain’s final Instagram post — a relatively unremarkable picture of a plate full of meat — has, as Tom Taylor observed at Grub Street, become transformed into a memorial space that has had sustained activity for three years. The post has more than 74,300 comments, far more than any of his other posts, with some as recent as a few hours before I wrote this.

Comments placed on the profiles of the dead are laced with a palpable desire to communicate directly. These profiles channel spiritually charged, neglected forms of mourning

These comments, like the messages sent to my brother, address Bourdain in second person, as if his last post opened a portal straight to him. They tell him they miss him; they thank him for inspiring them to change their lives; they say he visited them in dreams; they tell him they watched the documentary about him that he wasn’t alive to see. Many say they still hold out hope that there will be a new post on his profile some day. This phenomenon could be seen over the years on the Instagram profiles of other public figures who have tragically passed, including those of Michael K. Williams, Mac Miller, Naya Rivera, and more.

The posts left directly on the pages of the deceased differ from the kinds of tributes that grievers write and post on their own accounts. These posts are often intended to break the news of someone’s passing or detail the emotional toll the loss is taking. Usually, such posts speak of the dead in third person and are modeled on the language of conventional obituaries or eulogies; they are not composed as if intended to reach the departed. By contrast, comments placed on the profiles of the dead are laced with a palpable desire to communicate directly. Together, these profiles serve as conductors channeling spiritually charged, neglected forms of mourning.

Remarkably, there is little textual difference between the postmortem posts left on celebrities’ pages versus those left for family or friends. The concept of “parasocial” interaction may help explain this similarity. Used to describe one-sided, mediated relationships with public figures, parasocial relationships existed long before social media (the term was coined in 1956). However, social media and the habitual sharing they encourage has magnified this type of relationship, bringing parasocial interactions into the same feeds where we interact with posts from friends and family. Content from a celebrity, influencer, or a brand can comingle with communication from people we know intimately; this reduces the contrast between these types of relationships and makes one-sided parasociality a frequent and expected aspect of our social practice.

By necessity, posts on memorialized profiles of the dead are, of course, also one-sided. These profiles too are pushed into a liminal space where the boundaries between public and private and living and dead are all blurred, normalizing and routinizing parasocial interaction in a similar way but also transforming our relationships with lost loved ones, even those we knew deeply, into something that more closely resembles parasociality. In a sense, parasocial interaction fuses with the realm of the paranormal, constituting a new mode of social interaction: what might be called “paranormalsociality.” While modernity in Western culture had banished the structures of spiritual practice that made public and palpable the mourner’s yearning for direct communication with the dead, paranormalsociality brings it out once more. It becomes visible again, under the auspices of our more fully mediated everyday lives.

The history of electronic communications has a long, strange history of intertwining with people’s experience of the “Great Beyond.” As Jeffrey Sconce details in Haunted Media, the invention of the telegraph led to the increased belief that ghosts communicated through tapping and many believed the static of radios and televisions was communication from another dimension. On the less occult side of things, people often cherish voicemails from those who have died as a final remaining connection.

While it is not new for technology to mediate our relationship to death, the interactivity and public-ness of in-memoriam profiles is distinctly novel. Since their advent, social media platforms have blurred distinctions between presence and absence. They have pushed us toward being seen as always accessible, constantly balancing the demands of multiple audiences. The platforms direct flows of social activity through algorithms, which affect how we weigh our interactions or measure their importance. Many scholars, beginning with Alice Marwick and danah boyd, have talked about this as a kind of “context collapse,” which occurs when social spaces on the internet flatten “multiple audiences into a single context” and messages conceived with one audience in mind also reach other, unintended audiences. Some have suggested that we are also experiencing a temporal blurring — a “time collapse” that muddles past and present, with archives of distant digital traces being available for sudden reappearance in feeds.

Profiles from the living and the dead co-exist in the same space and are subject to the same temporal distortions, toward something more public, continuous, and socially oriented

Along the same lines, social media incur another kind of boundary collapse: one between the living and the dead. Profiles from the living and the dead co-exist in the same space and are subject to the same temporal distortions. As time goes by, this will only accelerate. The Oxford Internet Institute predicts that by 2100, the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook. Such intermingling will likely continue to fuel and mainstream the growing practice of paranormalsociality. The Western approach to grieving may move from something largely private and ceremoniously finite (attend a funeral and move on) toward something more public, continuous, and socially oriented.

This collapse also affects how we may conceive of our own profiles in life. Ordinarily, we don’t approach our social media profiles as if they will become postmortem monuments — at least not consciously. Typically they are full of DMs, photos, likes, casual updates, inside jokes, and more that catch the ephemera of life as it is being lived. After death, this sort of ephemera can become elevated to a sort of inscrutable sacred relic. Mourners may infuse a new level of significance into what is left behind as profiles become incredibly charged spiritual interfaces. These traces become much more profound than they would have seemed in their original context, capturing a sense of presence, of life having been lived, in a way that conventional memorials don’t. However, this can also lead to a strange overemphasis on trite details simply because they were simply the most recent activity. For example, when a local paper wrote a story on my brother’s passing, it used his profile as a source rather than consulting with family or friends, which resulted in its mentioning that one of the last things he did in life was “like Taco Cabana on Facebook.”

While the profiles of those who have passed can provide solace to mourners, they can also bring eerie discomfort. Posthumous communication from these sources can be deeply unsettling and even traumatic, as it can feel like the “reanimation” of someone who has died. Take for instance the infamous tweet from Herman Cain’s account that stated, “the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.” Cruelly, this tweet was posted two weeks after his death from Covid-19 complications. At the time of posting, the account still bore his name and picture, although it was purportedly being managed by his team.

This jarring message from “Herman Cain’s ghost” prompted discussions about the ethics of people continuing to speak through the digital avatars of those who have passed. The reactions to posthumous communication from a profile reveal how many of us implicitly view them as sacred digital remains that warrant a level of respect not dissimilar from physical remains. In 2019, when Twitter announced an intention to delete all inactive accounts, it caused a flurry of concern for those who still visited deceased loved ones’ Twitter accounts. The reaction was so intense that the company agreed to halt the process until it sorted out a way to memorialize accounts, which it still has not done.

Just as we tend to physical remains, we will have to make similar efforts with digital remains. This, in turn, means that tech companies have become custodians of the dead, whether they wanted to be or not. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google control crucial aspects of the contemporary experience of death and grieving. Their policies determine the ability to access, memorialize, upkeep, download, or delete. Social media platforms — which sit amid a tangle of public, private, and corporate interests — have ushered our relationship to the dead into a new space with its own rules, limitations, and affordances. In recent years in particular, these entities have been embroiled in a parade of controversies stemming from every shade of questionable practices. The fact that these are the platforms creating and hosting new modes of grief is certainly disconcerting.

With such a public roster of failures and challenges, how are we to trust these platforms with being the leading stewards of our modern relationship to death? Additionally, growing paranormalsociality only deepens our psychological and emotional entrenchment with these platforms, making it increasingly impossible to opt out. We are now inextricably bound even beyond death do us part, and any reckoning with social media platforms must delve into these layers.

Sara Reinis is a strategist by trade who thinks obsessively about the internet. Her research and writing interests surround social media, visual culture, and new technologies.