To begin with, I definitely did not come up with the term Thanatosensitivity. Michael Massimi and Andrea Charise from the University of Toronto were the first that I’ve heard to use the word, at least in relation to Interaction Design. You can read their article on the subject at http://www.dgp.toronto.edu/~mikem/pubs/MassimiCharise-CHI2009.pdf but I’m going for a more personal story in relation to the subject here.
In the summer of 2009 a friend of mine died in a car crash. He wasn’t my best friend, or someone I’d even known for a long time honestly. But at the time he was someone who would listen to me as I talked through other social issues at the time and was one of the nicest people I knew. We probably talked online more than we did in person and I liked it that way, it was easier to be more honest online than it would have been in person. So we’d annoy each other through the various chat clients at the time, aim, yahoo, Facebook chat, dating sites, and the Facebook poke system which was slightly more prevalent at that time. I believe we texted some too, and the weekend he had the accident, I was in Minneapolis at a gay-pride event. I think I messaged saying we wished he was there and may have had a voice-mail or two in response.
But then he died. For many of his friends at the time, he was the first person our age to die. For me, he was the first person I had an avid online presence with who died. Whereas when grandparents had died or other older or long-distance family members, even though they were more directly connected to me, there was a disconnect. Here though…there were emails and texts, online chat logs that had suddenly stopped. A Facebook memorial page was made, they did grief counseling at the school, and at the time his online presence acted as a way to hold on and remember him. As time passed some of that information stuck around while other aspects disappeared.
In that mess of information mess lies a Facebook poke. I eventually changed phones and updated my computer. Nobody I knows uses Aim anymore so those chat logs were lost. The texts and voice-mails were on the old flip-phone, and the transition up to an iPhone and from Alltel to Verizon lost the various connections that lay there. Dating sites changed with fads and I’d no longer run into his profile. Even his Youtube videos, if they do exist, have become lost in the weeds of the internet. But the Facebook poke is still there. I could delete it, I could ignore it, I could delete my Facebook, or I could poke back…and I’m not a religious person or someone who hopes for ghosts, or anything of that sort. So I know it will just disappear…
I wonder if Facebook is doing me any favors. They have a number of options when a user dies that have no connection to me. A profile can go on as if nothing happened. It could be deleted, along with any of the information or connections stored within it. Or it could be turned into a memorial to the person, with some aspects but not the entire amount of interaction. I have little choice in which of these happens as I’m not family. I believe currently when a user dies, family can express a desire for one of these options to occur. I could delete him, delete his poke, delete any connections…but these are actions on my part. I’m unsure if given a choice I’d ever want to delete him.
Since then I’ve lost more friends that existed in connection to my social-media presence. Not many, but a few…car crashes or drunk driving, mostly so far they’ve been due to accidents. But I’m only 28. I’m going to encounter more as the years pass, due to disease, age, suicide. At some point, if Facebook is still around and I posit with its current success it still might be in 40-50 years, more than half of my ‘Facebook friends’ [in quotes not for lack of love but just for the more filamented connection that occurs online] will be dead. I wonder, with an application and site based around the people within it, what happens when most of those people are ghosts? Without a plan, no social-media can survive the day that it starts to turn into one giant graveyard to our informational memories.
What my goal with this article? Mostly just to promote thought on this subject. Facebook is a fun [morbidly fun] example in this realm, but it is definitely not the only realm that has to think about this. I work on business applications and already have encountered the slightly distracting view of seeing a coworker’s name who no longer works at the company (due to purely business loss rather than mortality) peering at me from our instant messaging application. What is your applications plan when you lose someone? Are they stricken from the record? Is their information kept for a set amount of time? How long do you keep them around…some time may promote the grieving process but too much may leave to prolonged feelings of loss.
What is your applications plan for user-centric design when your users are no longer there?