“As users of Facebook will know Facebook has a panel on the side that suggests people that you might know,” he explained.
“In the list of suggestions on my page there were at least two individuals who were no longer with us -Facebook knew they were dead, so it had made this little notation that says “in memory of,” and turned them into memorial pages, but it was weird just the same.
“It started me thinking it’s kind of strange: here is my list of potential friends, of people Facebook thinks I already know, and some of them are already dead.
“What does that mean? “What does that tell us about the persistence of people after death as objects of love or duty or concern?”
Dr Stokes exploration of these questions led to the paper Ghosts in the Machine: Do the dead live on in Facebook recently published in the journal Philosophy and Technology.
“Every community has to find ways to deal with the deaths of its members, and online communities are no exception,” Dr Stokes said.
“What is becoming interesting in all of this is that our lives online and our deaths offline are intersecting in ever more interesting ways: celebrity death rumours, outbursts of public mourning on Twitter, people dying on blogs – and sometimes even faking their deaths to experience other people mourning for them.”
Dr Stokes said the online space gave people many opportunities to become someone else, maintain their anonymity or create a new identity.
“Like photo albums or old letters, social networking sites allow us to considerably enhance our posthumous selves in the minds of others, and in an important sense genuinely do help the dead dwell among the living a little longer than they perhaps might have done,” he said.
“Yet they do so in such a way that makes the separation between our online selves and the selves we actually experience ourselves as being all the more poignant.”
Dr Stokes said most social networking sites allowed relatives of deceased users to choose to keep their profiles online as a memorial.
“In effect the profile site is converted into a tribute site, a space of commemoration – a sort of open-ended electronic wake,” he said.
“Users can post tributes and messages, sometimes speaking of the dead person in the third or sometimes second person, even popping in from time to time to keep the dead person updated on what’s been going on.
“The profile remains largely the same, unless the survivors choose to alter it: the departed photos, interests, past comments and wall postings all remain as accessible as they were.
“Their online friendships connections persist, and if it weren’t for specific features such as the ‘in loving memory’ tag in their profile name, one could think the profile’s creators hadn’t died.
“In effect the online identity created when the user was alive has become unresponsive, but it remains in a very similar form to before.”
Dr Stokes said there was evidence to suggest that memorialised profiles helped those in grief, enriching their engagement with their memories of the person who had died.
“The sister of an Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan described it this way, saying she felt her brother’s Facebook profile ‘brought him back to life a little bit, you can hear him laughing.’ I think that sense in which people persist, though in a very diminished way, is quite powerful.”
Dr Stokes said technology was evolving to the point where in the future it was likely that people could leave a digital version or avatar of themselves so that those left behind could interact with it.
“We could potentially interact with this avatar as if the dead person continued to exist, – talking to the dead would become no more remarkable than talking to a distant friend via Skype,” he said.
“Eventually it’s not unthinkable that a very powerful software program could continue to update my Facebook profile on my behalf, years or even decades after my death.”
Dr Stokes doubted however that people would regard talking to an avatar as being as good as talking to the real person – it might even seem more like an imposter than the real thing.
There were also issues for the person themselves. Would such an existence count as living?
“It might count as my surviving for other people, but not my surviving for myself,” he said.
“In other words, the fact you can’t anticipate having the experiences of your Facebook profile means that you can only live on in that way for other people. It’s a real form of life after death, but not one you can actually look forward to.”
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