06/12/2014

Real People, Real Stories

The best way to clarify and emphasize how much digital death is relevant to all of us is by sharing real stories of real people, which is what I'll be doing here. I'll keep updating this post, if you came across a story, please send it to me: death.in.digital.era@gmail.com or through the Facebook page
As the origin of some of these stories in Israeli, the sources are in Hebrew. Sorry for the inconvenience this may cause in your reading experience. 


2014

  • SeptemberThe parents of 19 years old Jake Anderson, who froze to death on a river bank under circumstances which remain uncertain, started collecting signatures in a petition calling the state of Minnesota (where they live) for a change of its legislation. After Jake passed away, they were unable to login or get access to their son’s digital legacy, which they hoped would shed light on the circumstances of his death. An example to the pain and difficulty parents encounter when dealing with the digital aspects of death: “Nobody should have to face the roadblocks that we've had in just trying to see this stuffsaid his mother, Kristi Anderson.
  • AugustMyriam Safari’s mobile phone was stolen. It contained pictures and videos of her son Mooli, who passed away 3 weeks earlier, at the age of 5, and as she said: “Had memories that have no substitute”. An example to the great importance devices and their digital content have, following the death of a loved person, especially when not backed up.
Facebook screenshot
  • AugustLooking for a way to unlock a mobile phone of a soldier that was skilled in battle, without damaging its content. An example of the great significance digital devices have and their content for the people who love us.
Facebook screenshot
  • AugustSean Mondstein was killed in “Tzuk Eitan”, leaving behind personal notes in his mobile phone. An example of the enormous value of the digital content people leave behind
Newspaper article 
  • JulyLilah, sister of the soldier Liad Lavi who was killed in “Tzuk Eitan”, shares a video that the family members found after his death. An example of the great significance digital devices that we leave behind have and their content for the people who love us: she uses the word “Treasure”, when referring to the data the family got out of his portable hard drive.
Facebook screenshot
  • MarchApple refuses to grant Josh and Patrick, sons of Anthea Grant, who died of cancer, access to the ipad of their deceased mother. An example of the gap between what grieving people expect and the actual posthumous policies.
  • FebruaryJohn Berlin approaches Facebook in a moving video that turns viral, asking to see his deceased son, Jesse', "Look Back" video. Facebook responds to the request and later change their Look Back videos policy regarding deceased users. An example of how much what we leave behind is meaningful to our loved ones.

Please note: if you contact Facebook with a request regarding a 'Look Back' video of a loved one who passed away, as far as Facebook are concerned, this equals a request to memoralize the account even if it isn't what you had in mind. My colleague Damien Mc'Calig refers to it as a "trap" set by Facebook. I highly recommend you fully grasp the outcome of memoralizing an account before you take this step. 
  • January: In Israel, Ilana, a bereaved mother updates that she has managed to log in into her deceased daughter's Facebook account, Noy, and how much joy this brings her.
    An example of how dear our online legacy is to the people who love us. She chose the words “happiness” and “joy” to describe her feelings in this matter.
Facebook screenshot
  • JanuaryAmanda’s Twitter account, who passed away in April 2013, rose to the public’s awareness thanks to a video clip created of her tweets.
    An example of how significant can the digital footprints we leave behind be, even for strangers.
    September 2014 update: Amanda may not have been real :\.


2013

  • December: A social worker sends me an email with a request for help after the Facebook profile of a murdered man has vanished.
    An example for the fact that there is a need for training professionals also in the digital aspects related to a person’s death today, and to increase their awareness of the subject.
Email screenshot
  • November: The brother of an old acquaintance passed away, and he sends me the following private Facebook message.
    An example of the difficulties we deal with today, related to death in the digital era, which we did not have to deal with in the past.
Facebook screenshot, personal message
  • SeptemberRoni Lahav published on Facebook a request for help locating the iPad that was stolen from her house, which contained videos of her deceased husband with their child.
    An example for the importance of the digital assets we leave behind to the people who love us.
Facebook screenshot
  • AugustOmri Weil published on Facebook a screenshot of a Facebook profile, where the mother and sisters of Sagit Avital, who passed away, were asking her Facebook friends to stop congratulating her for her Birthday after her death, since it only adds to their pain. Sagit’s profile has been closed since. An example of the difficulties family members and friends experience after their loved one passes away, due to her/his presence, which still exists, online.
Facebook screenshot
  • JulyTzach Cohen, brother of Noy, who suddenly passed away, published in Facebook a request to help locating his sister’s mobile phone, which disappeared during the mourning days. Later on it was found that the phone was stolen and its entire content has been deleted.
    An example of the pain a family experience when they have no access to their loved one’s last photos: He uses the phrase “hold what is left from her”.
Facebook screenshot
  • FebruaryMatthew Beland passed away in the hospital, surrounded by his loving family. They knew he was dying and took care of everything, except for his digital legacy, simply because they did not think about it. His wife, Ashley, interviewed for a TV report in the US. An example of the gap between the family’s expectations and the actual policies of the internet providing companies, and an example of the importance of the digital legacy of the deceased person for her/his loved ones.
video

  • FebruaryRicky and Dian, parents of 15 years old Eric Rash who committed suicide and left no letter behind, approach Facebook and Google with request for access to his accounts and get refused, although Eric was a minor. The parents launch a process that brings to change of legislation in the state of Virginia with regards to access to the digital legacy of a minor.


2012


  • JuneHelen and Jay, parents of 21 years old Benjamin (Ben) Stassen who committed suicide and left no letter behind, approach Facebook and Google with a request to access his accounts and get refused.
    An example of the difficulties that arise and for the complexity of the subject: 
    The parents’ request for access for what their son left behind is understood, and so is the online websites and platforms who think it is their task to take care of their client’s privacy, in his life as well as after he passed away. As far as the parents are concerned, if he would leave a diary in his drawer, they would not need permission from any outer factor in order to open it.
  • MarchReadwrite published an article about the story of communities’ manager at www.tribe.net, who received contradictory requests from the sister and daughter of a deceased community member, regarding his account. An example of the difficulties and dilemmas that arise when the deceased person did not leave directions regarding their digital estate/digital content/ digital legacy.
  • FebruaryMagen Born receives a text message and finds out that her husband Joshua Born, a soldier in the US army was killed in Afghanistan. An example of how quickly information is distributed in the digital era, of the responsibility each one must have regarding publications after death and of the need for awareness and ethics. For additional reading:
  • A professional restoration lab succeeds in restoring some of the pictures that were stored in the mobile phone of Ayala Ifrah, who perished in the Carmel disasterReceiving the pictures was very emotional for her mother. An example of the enormous importance that digitally saved memories has – especially when being the last to stay after a loved person passed away.
Newspaper article

2011


  • OctoberDJ Danny Bar dies on the stand during work. Until today (2014), the LinkedIn suggests him as a potential connection to the professional musicians’ network. An example of dealing with online life after death.
  • AprilMy brother, Tal Shavit, was killed by car hit in March. In April, his Yahoo email account was hacked and used to distribute spam. This is how my journey to the worlds of digital death begun. An example of the difficulties death in the modern era brings – confrontations that the relatives of deceased persons did not have to deal with.
Print Screen of the inbox of a good friend of Tal's

2010



2005


  • JanuaryThe personal computer of Haim Avraham gets stolen, with irreplaceable memories and photos of his deceased son, the soldier Benny AvrahamAn example of the enormous pain that may be caused for the loved ones, when not having the digital legacy of the deceased.
Website article, print screen

  • After the death of 22 years old Loren Williams, his parents, Karen and David filed a lawsuit against Facebook, in order to gain access to his account. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first kind of a lawsuit against Facebook.His mother takes actions until this day so that other family members of deceased people will not lose pictures of their loved ones, as happened to her – Facebook removed her son’s account along with all the pictures in it, that were lost for his family. Meanwhile, the attempt for change of legislation she initiated in the state of Oregon, was unsuccessfulAn example of the gap between the will of the family and the policies of the service providers, and an example of the importance of the digital legacy of a deceased person for her/his loved ones.

2004


  • DecemberAfter the death of soldier Justin Ellsworth in Iraq, his family turns to Yahoo asking for access to his account, and get refused. This was the first case of dealing with digital death that got to the media, and caused a media and public uproarAn example of the gap between the family’s will and the policies of the service providers , and an example of the importance of the digital legacy of the deceased for her/his loved ones.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My heartfelt thanks to Amir Shemesh, who volunteered to translate this post. It went online in the Hebrew version of the blog in May 2014 and I've been updating it there since. 

03/12/2014

Pictures from the Knesset

On December 1st 2014 I spoke at the Knesset, in a discussion held by the Public Petitions Committee, as I told you about a short while ago. 

I hope to get around to translating what I said there in the nearer rather than the later future. In the meanwhile, here are some pics: 



Pic by Erez Cohen

Pic by Erez Cohen

Print screen from live TV broadcast at the Knesset Channel 

23/11/2014

I Gave a Talk at Kingston University, London, UK

On November 19th 2014 I gave a talk about Death in the Digital Era at Kingston University. 

I thank my colleague and friend, Dr. Korina Giaxoglou - Senior Lecturer in English Language and Communication, MA Language and Society, Course Leader - for initiating this talk and for arranging everything so well and so kindly; Dr. Marina Lambrou, Head of Linguistics & Languages, for inviting me to give this talk; My friend and Linkedin wiz Daniel Alfon along with my friend and Social Media wiz Ben O’Hanlon of VisionsLive for their generous assistance in promoting this talk. 

I thank the audience who attended the talk, including people who came from as far away as Dorchester, Bath and Nottingham


Print screen, Facebook, Digital Dust page

I thank Korina Giaxoglou and Morna O Connor for taking the following pictures and I thank Morna O Connor for capturing the talk on video

First slide
Picture by Morna O Connor

"First thing, let's get this off the table..."
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Students from Kensington University attended the talk as well
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

The Digital Footprints we're leaving behind
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Death among Facebook users - 2011, 'Life Insurance Finder'
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Morna O Connor recording the talk on video - thank you!
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

My brother and I 
Picture by Morna O Connor


For updates about my talks you're welcome to follow the Facebook page of the blog. 


18/11/2014

There will be a discussion in the Knesset about Digital Estate!

The Public Petitions Committee at The Knesset (the unicameral national legislature of Israel) will hold a discussion about Digital Estate / Digital Legacy / Digital Death on December 1st, 2014

I've been eagerly waiting to tell you about this for the past couple of weeks. 

I've been working on preparations for this meeting before I left - I'm currently abroad, as you know - and will resume working on it when I get back. 

More information to follow soon. 


Knesset, discussion room

10/11/2014

My Summary of 'Death Online Research Symposium', April 2014, Durham, UK - Day 1

First, I wish to thank the readers of the blog who participated in my crowdfunding campaign and thus allowed me to travel to the UK and participate in the symposium


Me at the 'Death Online Research Symposium', Durham
Picture by Astrid Waagstein

Second, I wish to share one of my personal highlights from this trip: being able to walk into a place and say: "Hi, I'm with the Death Online Conference Group", so thank you for that experienec, Tim :) .


Print screen of email

Third, I wish to thank the organizers and and my fellow attendees for the symposium (a total of about 40 people), as it definitely broadened my perception of what 'Digital Death' or 'Death Online' IS. It was great meeting some of my friends and colleagues from the 'Digital Death Day' unconference I attended in 2012 as well as making new ones: 

Left to right: 
Stacey Pitsillides, Korina Giaxoglou, Mórna O Connor and me
Train ride back from Durham

But now let's move on to the symposium itself: 

Getting ready to start!
Picture by Astrid Waagstein

Day 1 - April 9th

  • Opening Reflections: Douglas Davies and David Eaton, UK
  • Paper Session 1: "Digital Media in Funerals and Graveyards"
         Session Chair: Dorthe Refslund Christensen
    • "The humanist funeral practitioner’s perspective": Simon Allen, UK
    • "QR-codes on Danish gravestones: issues of privacy with public access": Stine Gotved, Denmark
    • "The living dead? Graveyards and augmented reality": Phillip Wane, UK
All three talks were fascinating for me. 

Simon Allen:


 
Both pictures by Vered Shavit 

 Simon Allen explaining how chapels and crematoriums etc. have modernized themselves and digitalized their services

I wasn't aware of the digital implications in this area of death. Simon shared anecdotes ranging from funny to moving: a smartphone used as a source for playing music during a ceremony, at the request of a family member, ringing in the middle of the ceremony while connected to the speakers; family members taking selfies at funerals or crematoriums etc..

Here are some quotes from his abstract:

"The Humanist Funeral Practioner’s Perspective
 Across 22 plus years of taking Humanist funerals, the progression of digital technologies continues unabated. Apart from the obvious use of digital technology within the funeral and disposal trades, every secular Officiant and religious minister uses technology in ways that could not have been imagined 30 years ago. I recall these particular examples of the first time that I saw:

  1. Families use e-mail to send me text and images: Now standard and they also send me music tracks. 
  2. No audio tape or CD players at crematoria: Now standard, as well as fully digital music play-out systems. 
  3. A family used analogue video camera to record the funeral: Now they use iPads, digital cameras and Smartphones. 
  4. Showing analogue video/slide show of the deceased: Now some Crems have digital projectors and 55” flat screens. Commercial companies offer this service. 
  5. Webcasting of funerals started in The Netherlands: Now many UK Crems have webcasting facilities. 
  6. A family defeated by the passwords of their son, an IT professional, so there were very few at the funeral as they could not notify his friends: Public recognition of the problem. 
  7. I am referred to Facebook and given temporary membership of their pages to gather information and view images: Now a commonplace, also sent comments from other social media. 
  8. Audio conferencing during my family visit to include those far away: Family now use video Skype, to include a relative overseas. 
  9. A grandchild reading his tribute direct from his Smartphone: Now a commonplace, also Tablets. 
  10. Mourners taking still photographs of the coffin before, during and after the funeral. Also, photos of the floral tributes: Now a commonplace, although usually on Smartphones. Commercial companies offer this service".

Scroll down for a short video. 


Prof. Stine Gotved:


Stine Gotved presenting her research about the usage of QR barcodes on graves in Denmark. 
Picture by Vered Shavit

I've been mentioning QR codes on graves in my talks since 2012, and it was interesting for me to hear about Denmark's current take of this issue. We have QR codes on graves in Israel as well, since 2011 (at least): 


Here are some quotes from her abstract:

"QR-codes on Danish Gravestones: Issues of Privacy with Public Access
In our digital age, even the gravestones offer online access. With the epicenter in Japan (2004), QR-codes on gravestones is a slowly spreading global phenomenon, changing our perceptions and traditions around the physical death and the related memorials. The gravestone is simultaneously physical and digital, the visitors to the grave can venture into a digital dimension while there, and the descendants are free to change the stone's content over time. Thus, the areas of physical death, mourning, and memorials are under transition due to pervasive technology, a growing culture of digital sharing, and persistent performances of individuality.
The cemetery as a secluded space is challenged by pervasive communication technology, and presumably, today most visitors bring their mobile phone. More often than not, the phone includes a camera, and the ever-growing amount of smartphones further have the possibility of applications for scanning QR-codes. Related to the dispersion of such mobile technology, QR-codes on gravestones have entered the cemeteries under the radar. No authorities have been involved, no act of regulation is passed, no priest seem to bother. Nevertheless, the article argues a fundamental shift in issues related to privacy, both offline and online. First, the stonecutters (who in Denmark sell, deliver and host the QR-codes as part of their service) have different ways of presenting the possibility to their customers, invoking various issues of privacy in the process. Second, the cemetery get subtle shifts in spatiality. Now there is a digital dimension with accessible content to enhance the existing infospace (primarily name and life span). Also, the downloads might transgress the privacy of the moment by disturbing other mourners at nearby graves. Third, the content behind the QR- code can be more or less private, most likely directed at family and friends of the deceased, rather than strangers (including researchers) passing by and downloading".

Phillip Wane

Phil wane demonstrating the usage of augmented reality with graves and tombstones. 
Picture by Vered Shavit

While I have heard of augmented reality before, for me it was the first time to "see it in action", and I was very impressed. Maybe this is the current future of headstones, until the next and newer technology will come along? 

Here are some quotes from his abstract:

"The Living Dead? Graveyards and Augmented Reality

This early stage research looks into the potential of commercially available Augmented Reality (AR) applications to allow visitors to cemeteries and other memorials to view relevant images. The author has experimented with the free Aurasma application, which allows users to overlay an augmented reality image onto a physical object when viewed through a mobile phone. One of the big advantages of AR applications over other approaches, such as the addition of Quick Response (QR) or Bar codes to headstones, is that nothing needs to be added to existing physical artefacts. It would also be possible to tailor the information based upon individual needs, for instance a family member might view one image and a member of the general public might view another. This might prove particularly useful where the deceased had a high public profile or where an organisation might want to provide AR information. For instance visitors to Commonwealth War Graves sites could call up images of the deceased, war records, or information about the campaign (where available). Especially timely given the approaching anniversary of the First World War.

The author began to investigate this area following the death of his own parents at separate times in 2009. The modest cremation headstone seemed insufficient (but was all that was permitted) so the idea of using an AR application to allow family members to see and, possibly even hear the deceased (via video clips) without having to physically change the headstone was compelling. The author tried some initial experiments which were crude but successful using the free software to call up images when a mobile phone was pointed at family headstones and the local cenotaph (the author’s father having had his photograph taken there). There are now commercial services looking to exploit the potential of AR in cemeteries (such as Digital Memorial), other pilot projects include the REACT FutureCemetery Project and large national war cemeteries have introduced applications to help visitors, though not always with full AR (Arlington National Cemetery in the United States). Whether from an individual perspective, or from a formal historical one, AR has the potential to enrich the visitor experience to cemeteries".

You can see a short video I filmed at the symposium with Simon Allen and Phillip Wane here


    • "Memorials, commemorative practices and digital games": Martin Gibbs, Michael Arnol and Bjorn Nansen, Australia
    • "Challenging mortality: committing suicide in digital games": Karin Wenz, The Netherlands
    • "RIP James and Lily Potter or 65.000 tweets about death that did not happen: real commemoration of a fictional event in digital communication space": Ilze Borodkina, Latvia

All three talks were very interesting for me. 


Dr. Martin Gibbs


Martin Gibbs talking about gaming, gamers and death
Picture by Vered Shavit

I wrote about gamers memoralization before (Jon 'NEVERDIE' Jacobs and Tina Lieu, James Payne) and this was a good opportunity for me to become acquainted with more stories and angles. 

Here are some quotes from their abstract (Martin presented by himself):


"Memorials, Commemorative Practices and Digital Games



As people devote more leisure time to online video games, and as they form social relations associated with these media, it is unsurprising to find that these games become vehicles for expressing grief and for memorializing the dead. These games provide a social context in life, and they also provide a social context for people's attention to death. Many examples of funeral rites that act to memorialize the dead are conducted within multiplayer games and are documented through player-generated materials posted to video hosting sites such as YouTube. Much like book dedications, the developers of games also have been known to place epitaphs and mementos acknowledging the deceased within games. Sometimes these can take the form of a dedication in the manual, or in release notes for the game. More interestingly, developers have placed memorials within games. In some cases these memorials take the form of "Easter eggs" — text, images or sounds hidden away within the game. For example, deceased developers, players and fans of particular games have been represented as non-player characters in games such as World of Warcraft, Rome Total War II and Borderlands 2. Other memorials are more explicit. For example, memorials to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the co-creators of Dungeons and Dragons, were added to Dungeon and Dragons Online shortly after their deaths in 2008 and 2009.

Online game engines provide game developers with a range of materials for memorialization. These memorials can invoke the semiotics of traditional stone monuments, gravestones, and cenotaphs. They can also connote a form of mummification through the preservation of avatars. They can also take dramaturgical forms, drawing players into interactive stories that honor, evoke and recall the deceased. Multiplayer online games also provide players with the opportunity to commemorate deceased players through ritual-like practices within the game".  

Dr. Karin Wenz

I'm not a gamer but I have several friends who are. I think that through meeting Karin, people will take gaming and gamers more seriously, which makes her a good ambassador to those communities (even if it is not her intention - she is simply being herself, which includes being a gamer). 
Listening to her talk reminded me of a genre of games I read about in which the character of the player "really" dies - that is, his/her avatar dies, and the player has to start all over again: the character can't "resurrect" as avatars in games usually do. Gamers refer to it as "permadeath".  

Here are some quotes from her abstract:

"Challenging Mortality: Committing Suicide in Digital Games

This contribution discusses the function of dying and committing suicide in digital games. Games challenge the concept of mortality as they offer replay as the player can return to the last safe point, be resurrected or simply start over again. The question whether the player or the game are in control are in focus of this presentation. How players gain control through replay and counterplay strategies as committing suicide is opposed to the game's impact on the player to adapt to the affordances of the game.

The omnipresence of death and dying in digital games can be seen as based in the computer's ontology. Do we understand the computer as a simulation machine then we challenge the concept of mortality. While symbolic representations of death in novels or movies allow for an imaginary examination of death and dying and philosophical questions of mortality, digital games differ in their death simulations. They hinder this reflection and examination because of their replay function as this highlights repeatability without consequences. What games add, however, different to death in novels or movies is the observation of the own death, even though it is just the own avatar dying. As the player is still able to resurrect and continue playing, death is connected to control and gains an airiness that is reflected in gaming practices as committing suicide in game. The amount of suicide gaming videos on YouTube shows how the experience of dying is central for some players of games and how they try to find out which and how many ways there are in a game to commit suicide. This can be described as counterplay, a concept that is used to describe a way to play a game against its rules or against the intention of the designers. Counterplay means using the in-built game algorithm not for solving tasks given by the game but using the game for something else than expected. Instead of fighting monsters or another team of players and submitting to the game’s affordances players can use the game environment for different performances. Instead of submitting to the game the players take over control and try out what else the game environment can be used for. Being in control while facing the loss of control is central for suicides in game". 

Ilze Borodkina


 Both pictures by Vered Shavit

Ilze Borodkina talking about virtually grieving for fictional characters

I wasn't aware of this prior to her talk, but turns out we not only have virtual grieving for people who are still alive and virtual grieving for people who are no longer alive, but also virtaul grieving for people who were never alive - such as characters in a book

Here are some quotes from her abstract:

"R.I.P. James and Lily Potter or 65.000 Tweets about Death that did not Happen: Real Commemoration of a Fictional Event in Digital Communication Space

The book series about Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and especially the last book has assigned a special meaning to October 31st, 1981, that the writer has chosen as the day when parents of main hero died. Although just five years ago this fact was yet unknown and twenty years ago even the fantasy world that these characters inhabit was not created, on October 31, 2011 the digital communication space experienced commemorative activities of different formats with the goal of recognizing 30th anniversary of James and Lily Potters’ death. The intensity of these activities reached a level, where, for example, phrase RIP James and Lily Potter not only appeared on the list of trending topics in Twitter, but even was brought to the position Nr.1. In this sense, Potters became equal to other celebrities whose deaths initiated massive online mourning campaigns like Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse, with the only difference being that they actually never lived.
To gain a deeper insight into this phenomena, 65,483 tweets containing the above mentioned trending phrase were archived during approximately 24 hours, and analyzed within the framework of grounded theory".

And now, let's step outside, where you can see a picture of Ilze and me: 


Ilze Borodkina and me, Durham
Picture by Jakob Borrits Sabra 

My summary of day 2 - April 10th will be posted soon, stay tuned.