Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

The Internet Is Filling Up with Dead People and There's Nothing We Can Do About It

On the Web, you can’t die so much as join the ranks of the undead.

  • July 10, 2011

Aside from the feeling that I’m giving up yet more of my privacy out of fear of becoming techno-socially irrelevant, the worst part of signing up for a new social network like Google+ is having the service recommend that I invite or classify a dead friend.

Now, I’m aware that I could prevent this happening by deleting this friend from my email contacts list, because I’m a Reasonably Savvy Geek™ and I’ve intuited that the Gmail contacts list is Google’s central repository of everyone with whom I’d like to pretend I’m more than just acquaintances (by ingesting them into the whirligig of my carefully mediated, frequently updated, lavishly illustrated social networking persona).

But what about the overwhelming majority of people who don’t know this or won’t bother? And what happens when I figure out how to overcome Facebook’s intransigence about being rendered irrelevant and extract my social graph from that site and stuff it into Google+, and this friend is re-imported? Round and round we go.

Even though I know it’s an option, I don’t want to simply erase this friend from my view of the Internet. Even though I know the virtual world, unlike the physical, can be reconfigured to swallow every last unsavory landmark in our past.

Unfortunately, as this dilemma arises again and again throughout the life of any connected citizen, active filtering seems to be the only workable solution. Facebook and MySpace before it both allow accounts to be memorialized, and presumably Google+ and maybe even Twitter will, too. But how often will that happen? How many people are even aware it’s an option, or that once you’re done making arrangements to lay someone’s body to rest, you’ve got a whole ‘nother round of virtual responsibilities to dispose of?

We’re all leaving a trail of digital bread crumbs across the web, some of us more than others. On the Internet, you can’t die so much as join the ranks of the undead. Everyone who’s left has to decide whether they can live with your ghost / zombie / poltergeist popping up and re-inserting itself into your life. The alternative is a double-tap to a loved one’s leftover virtual self, a concerted effort to put one particular expression of a memory down so the rest can live in peace.

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