Published in the Courier Mail 23 June 2009
There’s a saying that ‘once something goes digital, it never disappears’. If you post a photo online, then someone can copy it and paste it on to their blog. Someone else can then copy that and email it to another friend. Pretty soon, your photo is on 20 different computers, and if you’re lucky, some of them have even been retouched and you look ten years younger!
Digital is a relatively recent paradox – with photos being a perfect example. Digital Photos are at once more tenuous, while also more tenacious, then those you process from film. I still regret the loss of all my gorgeous photos from Fiji several years ago, after a computer malfunction caused their files to get corrupted less than 24 hours after I had loaded them all my laptop. If I had taken them on film, and processed them, I would have a hard copy.
However, on the other hand, who hasn’t been amazed at how quickly photos can be distributed now. Mobile uploads of wedding photos can be uploaded to sites such as Facebook or Twitter before the ceremony’s even over. This essentially provides the decentralisation of storage, so that there are multiple copies available. These copies stay online in various iterations, as well as people often being able to save them to their own computer.
Something tells me we haven’t yet completely understood or processed (no pun intended) the ramifications of everything going digital. One aspect of this is the growing concern and confusion about the so called ‘cyber graveyards’ that are developing on social networking sites such as Facebook when a user passes away.
From the legal estate viewpoint, some lawyers are now suggesting that people keep lists of site memberships and cryptic logs of passwords. Therefore when someone dies, the executor of the estate will be able to access and change their profile (If this all sounds a little mature for a social networking site, consider than in the last six months of 2008, Facebook’s 35-54 year old demographic segment saw a 276.4% growth rate.)
However, once the mechanics of how to get into the site are fixed, the dilemma remains as to whether sites contribute to, or facilitate, healthy grieving. Should sites be removed, or left up as a memorial? How long should they be left up? Add the fact that some family members report that sites are reluctant to completely remove profiles of the deceased and it becomes a quandary.
The tenuous vs tenacious dilemma comes into play again. Depending on the family, the situation, and the level of discourse on the website, it may be that digital copies everywhere are the last thing you want or need. On the other hand, many of the sites could serve as the perfect depository for information, photos and videos. They could also provide a point of connection for people who are sharing the mourning process, and give people a destination for their expressions of grief, in a similar way to a headstone, yet one accessible from virtually anywhere in the world.
The relatively new, and certainly different, information dynamics now available with digital content open up a range of opportunities, as does the growth of social networking websites. Perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure that online profiles become something that can serve and facilitate the commemoration of a life, in a way that is contextually appropriate. That will take a lot of conversation, particularly between users and site administrators. However, this is not an issue that is going to go away anytime soon. It may not be the conversation we want, but it’s the one we have to have.