Program extends Facebook's reach into afterlife
By Craig Smith
Published: Monday, July 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Jill Patterson became part of a social media trend when she began an interactive memorial to her husband's grandfather in the digital beyond.
“When you lose the patriarch of the family, there isn't that rock in the middle,” said Patterson, 36, of Greensburg. “In sharing these memories, you can remember where you came from.”
When he died in 2004, Clyde Jones of Slickville left six sons, three daughters, 49 grandchildren, 63 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren. They live across the country.
Using a Facebook app called Evertalk, this scattered family can connect in a personal way to preserve and share memories of the man who influenced their lives. Patterson hopes to post the memorial before September.
“This is a really interesting concept and a neat way to use social media,” Patterson said about Evertalk, which enables users to post and read memorials, coordinate donations or announce services.
Russ Hearl, Evertalk's developer and founder, said people have created pages for victims of the theater shootings in Aurora, Colo.
“There's a realization in our culture that when someone dies, it's almost like they never existed,” said Hearl, 35, a former Cleveland resident who lives in San Francisco. “There was so much data generated during their lifetime, and then the timeline ends.”
That changes in the online world.
“Our digital selves definitely outlive us,” said Craig Detweiler, director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture and associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
“By now, we almost all have a Facebook friend who has passed away, “ he said. “And yet their digital profiles live on, with people actively posting on their wall, sending messages, engaging in acts of remembrance. When we pass away, our digital footprints can fix us in cyberspace, eternally young — or at least not aging beyond our YouTube videos or Facebook profiles.”
Online memorial sites have existed for some time, but Evertalk, which Hearl said signed up about 5,000 people in the past three weeks, brings the trend to Facebook, the largest of the social media sites with 900 million users worldwide.
Hearl estimated that about 8,000 American users of Facebook die each day. He based that on reports that half of the people in the United States have Facebook profiles and CIA World Factbook data showing that 16,000 people die in the United States per day.
Independent estimates say 580,000 Facebook users in the United States and 2.8 million worldwide will die this year.
The digital beyond is a natural extension of social media, said Robert Morris University lecturer Yvonne S. Bland.
“Many people don't understand that online relationships are just as vivid and real as the person who lives next door,” said Bland, who calls herself “hard-core wired,” with eight email accounts, Facebook and Twitter on her smartphone.
“In reality, the digital community provides a great deal of comfort and solace,” she said. “It makes perfect sense for people used to communicating in text.”
Social networking is one of the fastest-growing segments of the digital age, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which tracks Internet use.
Sixty-five percent of adult Internet users say they use a social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn, Pew researchers said. Twitter use grew from about 8 percent of online adults in 2010 to 15 percent this year.
People use social media to stay in touch with friends and family or connect with old friends. A growing number of them want to be remembered, Hearl and others said.
The Evertalk app is free, and a basic page costs $2 a month. Users can pay $29 a year for an unlimited number of pages. A free option is under development, Hearl said.
The implications of the digital beyond are huge and continue to evolve, experts say.
Who manages the digital assets of someone who died? Do they need digital wills?
“People should be planning their digital afterlife,” said Evan Carroll, who co-authored “Your Digital Afterlife” with John Romano and founded The Digital Beyond, a think tank for death and legacy issues. The book warns of legal and technical issues that could prevent survivors from accessing family photos, home movies and personal letters in digital form with services such as Flickr, YouTube and Gmail.
Facebook recognizes the importance that profiles can play in remembering departed friends and family members, and the social networking service offers a form in its help section to request that accounts be placed in “a memorialized state,” Carroll said, but laws dealing with the topic have not kept pace.
“We don't have a legally acceptable way of dealing with the digital. ... There's so much more to it than opening a Facebook account,” he said.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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