We may be mere mortals, but our Twitter avatars need not die with us.
LivesOn is a controversial post-mortem Twitter application nearing its launch that enables users to tweet from the afterlife. It promises to extend your social life even after your terrestrial life is over, by keeping an active Twitter profile alive: “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep Tweeting.”
Developed by the London-based digital advertising agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine in collaboration with Queen Mary, University of London, LivesOn is designed so that its users can “train” the program while they are living. Over time, LivesOn will adapt to the living users' habits and preferences, eventually becoming their digital twin. (LivesOn is currently accepting pre-subscriptions but has not announced an official launch yet.)
The LivesOn account is designed to evolve in stages. It will start out as a generic private feed set up by the user, suggesting things they might like or find interesting, but it becomes increasingly accurate at learning users' preferences with feedback. Using tools like Google Prediction, genetic algorithms and Bayesian inference (a statistical method for calculating probability), the program will, at least in theory, become exponentially more attuned to its users habits by way of a function that allows the user to approve or disapprove automated tweets.
“It will most likely be gobbledygook to begin with,” LivesOn spokesman Dave Bedwood said. But he added that “over time and with your help,” the service will eventually grow into “a very good aggregator -- like Netflix or Amazon.” And then, if you’re still willing, you can enable it to continue posting tweets for you after you die.
LivesOn’s creators have not said whether they plan to share user-generated content with advertisers, or even if they have a monetization strategy in mind. Bedwood said that the project began as more of a “fun experiment” than from “trying to find an idea to make money.”
While Bedwood believes LivesOn will also become “a very helpful tool” for the living, allowing users to “go and do other stuff whilst your LivesOn version scours the Internet for the things you would like to read and watch,” its detractors are concerned with how it might affect people’s ability to cope with death.
Patrick Tomasso, a Canadian social content strategist, told the Huffington Post that he worries that a simulated Twitter account would be too eerie and unsettling for most people.
"It's morbid seeing tweets from the dead,” Tomasso said. “So it just feels fake.”
LivesOn may seem groundbreaking, but it's only the latest (and most advanced) in a spate of online services that offer users tools they can create to manage their “digital legacies” after they die. Several other programs, including DeadSoci.al, IfIDie, Intellitar and 1000 Memories have produced similar services, all geared toward solving the problem of what happens to online accounts once their owners are in the grave.
Two things set LivesOn apart from its predecessors: First, its promise to integrate artificial intelligence into its framework, and second, the requirement that users appoint an executor to manage their “digital estate” when they die.
While Bedwood has downplayed some of the budding hype around the former -- he described the project recently as merely an “experiment” in artificial intelligence -- researchers say that it’s simply a matter of time before such “algorithmically-based” services become a reality. While Bedwood has mentioned some of the already available tools that will be integrated in the application, including Google Prediction, he hasn’t revealed what else LivesOn’s engineers may have up their sleeves.
“It actually doesn’t matter whether LivesOn is real or not, or whether it will work or not,” said Jed Brubaker, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine studying Informatics and digital identity. “Something in the future will. And so it’s worth thinking about ‘what does that mean?’”
In 2011, Brubaker co-authored a study titled “Grief-Stricken in a Crowd: The Language of Bereavement and Distress in Social Media,” exploring a growing phenomenon that he and his collaborators labeled “post-mortem social networking.” The study analyzes the language and emotional content of MySpace users grieving for friends and relatives on the deceased’s private pages -- digital spaces that Brubaker and his colleagues discovered, which have begun replacing traditional sites of mourning.
One thing that can attract people to a profile page rather than a more customary memorial, Brubaker said, is that the deceased often seem to have “a symbolic ownership over the page.” Reaching out on such a forum, in a place that was created by the deceased person when they were alive, can consequently make the act of mourning more intimate, he said. On the other hand, however, it can create an entirely new kind of unease for other users in that network, who might easily come across the content by accident.
While Brubaker thinks social media platforms can be a great way for family and close friends to engage with the deceased, he acknowledged that they can also become visible to a host of less intimate acquaintances: former coworkers, high school friends, people who might otherwise never become aware of the deceased’s death. Now, not only are they informed about the user’s death, but they suddenly become privy to the most personal memories and outpourings of grief, an experience Brubaker compared with walking into a funeral unawares.
“There are new kinds of grief [caused by] the interconnected nature of social media and the kinds of connections that we maintain,” Brubaker said. “And they’re new because these are types of connections that maybe would not have persisted if it were not for social media.” Brubaker says that inadvertently coming across death content on social media sites can be particularly emotionally jarring because this content is delivered in the same way as trivial news.
“People in my research are freaked out when technology violates their expectations around the deceased,” he said, adding that he often hears about people stumbling upon news of an upsetting death “in otherwise standard news feeds ... You know, vacation photos, YouTube videos, ‘oh, someone’s dead.'”
“It’s a very sensitive topic,” Meredith Chin, a spokeswoman for Facebook, told the New York Times during an interview in 2010, “and, of course, seeing deceased friends pop up can be painful.” Chin said that due to the site’s growing user base, “and people passing away every day, we’re never going to be perfect at catching it.”
The deceased’s growing presence on social media sites is not just a problem of user experience; it’s also created an entirely new class of ambiguities in state and federal laws. Suzy Walsh, an estate lawyer and chair of the Uniform Law Commission, a non-partisan conference that works to standardize state laws, said that given how youth-oriented social media sites like Facebook are, those sites' creators overlooked what would happen to content when users died. “It seems like this whole industry grew without thinking about fiduciaries,” Walsh said.
According to the ULC, as of February of 2013, roughly 30 million Facebook accounts belonged to deceased users -- although that number is much higher than data released by Entrustet, a digital estate planning service now owned by SecureSafe, suggests. In 2012, company co-founder Nathan Lustig predicted that 2.89 million Facebook users would die each year internationally, and he said that number would only grow.
But while family members might assume that the private information left behind on sites like Facebook would naturally go to them, the present reality is much more complicated than that.
Walsh said that the motivation to create new social media laws, and ones that would specifically allow fiduciaries (the parties responsible for managing the decedents’ assets) to step into the shoes of account holders in the event of a death, arose partly as a response to a number of incidents in which parents were unable to access information about their children from sites like Facebook. On the contrary, the reigning social network titan has sparked outrage among many bereaved family members by legally challenging requests to turn over private user data to them.
“Facebook for example has a provision in its Terms of Service that essentially says you can’t give someone else permission to run the account,” Walsh said. “A lot of [the cases] are minors, where the parents wanted access to the account and Facebook says, ‘first of all that’s not the agreement we have with our shareholders, and second of all there are federal laws that say you can’t do this.’”
"The idea before the Uniform Act is that it would say that the fiduciary essentially has the consent of the account holder to access the account,” Walsh said.
One example she cited was the case of Ricky and Diane Rash, a Virginia couple who told the Washington Post that when their 15-year-old son mysteriously committed suicide in 2011, they hoped to search his social media accounts for clues about his death. But they faced intense resistance from Facebook, which told the Rashes that due to state and federal privacy laws they couldn’t provide them with private account information “until their son’s estate was settled.”
“We were just grieving parents reaching out for anything we could,” Ricky Rash told the Washington Post. “Our issue with Facebook and social media is, we should have access.”
Facebook’s refusal to produce such data is more common than not. As Guardian tech writer Charles Arthur notes, “it's a violation of many websites' terms of service for surviving relatives to go on using your passwords; and digital libraries of messages and photographs can't easily be passed on unless the correct consent is in place.”
Walsh echoed that claim by saying that not only did she find out that social networking sites are loath to permit anyone other than the designated user have account information, but she also had trouble imagining a scenario that would involve ongoing use of such an account by another person. When asked how LivesOn’s provision for an executor might fit into legal reform, Walsh said that it would be a hard sell for providers like Facebook.
“I don’t even know how to wrap my brain around how that would interact with our statute,” she said. “We’re only saying you can step in in order to administer the estate, we’re not contemplating this sort of ongoing use of the account.” Which is something, she added, that “disturbs some of the [service] providers.”
If Facebook has a difficult time letting in a flesh and blood executor, it’s probably even less likely to welcome an artificially intelligent algorithm that’s been assigned to generate content for dead users. But Brubaker fervently believes that such algorithms are the future of social media.
“In terms of media literacy, I’m sure there was a time when encountering a photograph of someone who had died was particularly upsetting, particularly if you didn’t know what a photograph was,” Brubaker said. “It’s not unreasonable to think that eventually ... people might actually involve algorithms in the curation of content.”