Virtual tombstones, digital footprints and the impact of technology on the grieving process
Dr Matthew Rinaldi
In July 2015, social media colossus Facebook launched its ‘legacy contacts’ feature in the UK. Already popular in the United States, it allows you to nominate an executor of your Facebook page when you die. The appointed can choose which of your photos greets visitors. They can write a message from you and even select the friends who can view your memorial page that remains in the worldwide web as a virtual tombstone for your social network.
Eter-9 is a website that takes your digital footprint one step further into the afterlife. It uses artificial intelligence to learn your personality and opinions from the social media comments you’ve posted and extrapolates them after your death. It allows users to meet their counterpart whilst alive and modify it should it be flawed. The creators suggest that the accuracy of the posts is related to the amount the person used social media whilst alive.
This vision of i-Mortality that social media is beginning to offer us was parodied in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror British television anthology series (2011) in an episode entitled ‘Be Right Back’. In it, Ash dies the day he was due to move in with his girlfriend. In her grief, she signs up for a website similar to Eter-9 so that she can continue to interact with a version of him. She grows to rely on the idealised Ash that he played out on social media. Soon she discovers a way to bring him back in body and it is then that she repeats the grieving process, discovering his avatar’s mistakes and faults until she triumphantly destroys the impostor version of him.
Though our technology is not as advanced at that in ‘Be Right Back’ (Eter-9 is still in beta-format stages of development), the possibility of living immortally via the internet is growing ever closer in various guises and it is therefore important for us to think now about how that is played out psycho-analytically for both the person and their loved ones. Narcissism is a common motivator for engagement with social media (Ong et al 2011) and raises questions over the integrity of any legacy based on such information. The spawn of legacy programs from narcissistic social media outlets also informs us about the relationship between these two analytic concepts. Using the example of social media, this article will explore how the creation of legacy arises as a defence against death anxiety that follows from the narcissistic position. It also considers how these technologies impact on the grieving process. This is presented as one aspect of the ever-evolving realm of social media.
The narcissistic view of ourselves that is presented via social media outlets is documented as one part of the analytic research into social media (Ong et al 2011). In summary, social media allows one to present an idealised version of oneself through selected attractive selfies, success stories and considered witty remarks presented as off-the-cuff humour. This is to the exclusion of our fallibilities and weaknesses in the search for external validation or ‘likes’. This is narcissistic regression and is exemplified in Facebook’s refusal to complement the ‘like’ feedback function with a ‘dis-like’ button, enhancing the narcissistic feedback loop. This is different from cathartic creation of a video or piece of writing since these would not necessitate online publication.
The opposite of ‘likes’ is the phenomenon of trolling. Behind a screen of anonymity, online personas aggressively attack people’s posts. These range from general, constructive feedback to harsh criticism. It snowballs, becoming ever more brutal and derogatory, in turn attracting more trolls. This process has driven victims to suicide. Studies suggest that trolls’ behaviour stems from sadism, antisocial behaviour, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.
It is interesting to note that as social media has moved from universal positive reinforcement as evidenced by the ‘like’ function to the dark emergence of trolling, so Freud similarly moved chronologically from describing the narcissistic impulse in ‘On Narcissism’ (Freud, 1914a) to how the death impulse can then be projected outwards as destruction in ‘Ego & the Id’ (Freud, 1923).
Idealisation of the Smart-phone
Defence mechanisms are also revealed in the invention of smart-phones and the investment of libido akin to our relationships to the ideal object. Our oral connection several times a day whilst cradling against our phones provides similar comfort as breast-feeding and holding does to the infant. This idealised ‘smart-phone self’ we project into the breast has perfect memory (accessible emails and SMS threads), is intelligent (Wikipedia access), nourishes us (HungryHouse), tells witty tales (holiday photos on demand), tells us where to go (maps), remains close-by to respond to our needs (where is yours right now? Did you have to think about that?) and remains slim and attractive throughout its life span. We jabber at our phones in ‘txt speak’ – an ever-simplified baby babble interpretable only to those who have similarly regressed. In the same way, infants develop secret languages to avoid interaction with anxiety-provoking adults.
We defend ourselves against general anxiety by this projective identification with our smart-phones and it is revealed when one loses or has their phone stolen. It is more than simply the loss of an object, it is a loss of self and the ability to connect with others. I pay as much for life insurance as I do to insure my phone and this reflects the relative value I attach to each.
We are trusting more of ourselves to our phones. Weighing scales and even toothbrushes are being developed with Wi-Fi connections. In the near future, it could be de rigeur that our phone will know how often we brush the inside of our left upper molar and the rate at which we are increasing our body fat percentage. Ever more, the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘my phone’ is becoming blurred.
Although this may seem inane, it is important to note that over time we do come to depend on our smart-phones. Those who compulsively check, as I do, the time of the train they booked the night previously – a reminder our grandparent’s generation would not have depended on or required – will empathise. This illustrates that we trust our short-term memory to this external object and it follows that with it goes our long-term memory as that data ages. With time and ever younger relationships to smart-phones, so too will go our childhood experiences, drives and fantasies.
The direction of causality is difficult to ascertain. Did our gradual investment of libido increase with the discovery of useful smart-phone capabilities as we watched them develop from the ‘bricks’ of old, leading us today to identify fully with our smart-phones? Or is it the instant opportunity to create a permanent, idealised digital footprint to outlast oneself that leads us to engage so intensely with them? I would argue that either could be true and certainly the latter would result in a lesser-diminished ego if one still considered that the ego is producing the digital self. However, the gradual creation of an externalised ideal self, un-consciously, could very easily lead to a diminishment of the corresponding respect for our own personal, pink, squidgy, fallible mother-boards.
The move to paranoid-schizoid and fragmentary positions
The relationship between the ‘idealised’ smart-phone and ourselves is bi-directional – as outlined in Freud’s paper on narcissism – if we are to take the above assumption that the externalised self in the smart-phone is akin to the internal ideal self that narcissists maintain. The more we idealise the object, the more we feel idealised by the object and the narcissistic impulse is strengthened. In relation to smart-phones however, there is no escape from the feedback loop because, unlike the breast, there is no need to progress through to the object cathexis to appreciate the object as a fallible object. When faults in smart-phones begin to appear they can either be repaired or replaced; this keeps them as the ideal breast, nourishing, guiding and amusing us and thereby preserving us in the regressed state (albeit fleetingly paranoid-schizoid) wanting to destroy the physical smart-phone with a cracked screen and continuing to idealise one’s own idealised, projected self which is preserved in the Cloud.
Furthermore, the development of ‘apps’ whereby one can store photos, videos, text, body fat percentage and tooth-brushing technique data in discrete locations within one’s phone, represents fragmentation. As Klein warns us, this process, if prolonged or enduring, weakens the fragile un-integrated ego and causes severe disturbance (Klein, 1946). Clinically, this is of concern for anyone who identifies overly with their phone.
“Death comes to all, but great achievements raise a monument which shall endure until the sun grows old.” George Fabricius
We have explored how our increasing dependence on social media outlets and smart-phones demonstrates a general regression to childhood defences. We will now consider that the move for social media to easily provide us with a legacy sheds light on how the death anxiety and this particular defence against it develop from the narcissistic position.
The blog of death is headed by the above quotation. It eulogises remarkable people who have variously changed the face of music, law, literature and medicine through their lives – people whose memory serves as an inspiration to all who read it. However, the quotation also questions what counts as ‘monuments which shall endure’ when we consider the spectrum of Internet posts existing now. Since the internet-native youth of today will grow up blog-literate and able to post any fleeting thought at will, it questions the requirements for lasting legacy and whether their legacy is required to be of a certain content to remain. Will this ability to create something to outlast oneself so flippantly engender an underlying laziness in generation-Z?
The Internet, whilst vital, alive and expanding, is also a graveyard. Websites are coded, uploaded and superseded. But the old sites are rarely removed and often continue until the domain name expires. Heaven’s Gate is a chilling example of this. Most of the members of this California cult committed mass suicide by eating poison-laced applesauce on 19 March 1997. Despite this, their philosophy and testimonials persist on the Internet and the marketplace even allows you the option of purchasing their Videotapes (remember those?).
Less dramatic, there is also a plethora of generic ‘blogs’ on the Internet describing a whole host of issues – the most common themes being ‘me’, ‘my day’, ‘I’ and ‘the things I’ve done’ – achievements that raise a monument, but are they ‘great’?
Whether it be in the face of pending mass suicide or the distant inconceivable ageing and death of a YouTubing teenager, these are e-defences against the death anxiety. Knowing that so long as the post is made on a website with an indefinite lease on the domain name or to a publicly owned company’s site such as Facebook, they are reassured that their posts will remain to outlast them. This knowledge reassures the narcissist who has expended such energy and time populating the idealised self that their monument shall not fade as they will.
These are an extension of defences previously outlined in legacy planning. As Kierkegaard might put it, bloggers tranquilise themselves with the trivial (Bassett, 2007). We also see the defence of commodification of sex with websites like Tinder and Grinder that allow users to arrange sex and circumvent social norms of talking, eating a meal or even having a drink before the act.
When my friend Andy died, my grieving process was complicated by social media. He died when MSN messenger was popular. This was an online chat portal where you created a list of your school-friends who you could choose to talk to online. An icon would pop up in the corner of the desktop when your friends signed on to their computers and you had the option of starting a conversation with them. Our parents did not understand the technology and, as such, after his funeral, his father didn’t know to uninstall the program. Each time his dad would sign on to the family computer, all Andy’s friends would see the pop-up icon, a flicker of hope would pass through their heads that this was all a mistake – that we were still able to talk somehow, please. Our reality testing was confused. We were e-haunted. And we grieved a second time for him when the account was eventually deactivated.
Facebook is aware of the impression an idle profile page gives off to visitors. It is ambiguous. This is partly the reason why the aforementioned Memorial Pages were created. However, assuming that it is an idealised self with which users libidinise their Facebook accounts, our grieving process will stall if we are to peruse these pages. As Freud pointed out, it is a narcissistic object relationship that the melancholic has with the abandoned object rather than the mourner (Freud, 1914b). Any relationship with such a memorial page would stall the movement towards mourning.
The trolls are ever present. There are reports of them attacking memorial pages of people they drove to suicide and even their families. Analytically, as mentioned previously, this represents the death anxiety projected outward as destruction. The idealised people represent the perfect target as a defence against one’s own guilt over killing them. This would have been unheard of before social media. Perhaps we could recall anecdotal evidence of graves being defaced, but this online record of abuse speaks volumes. With the mask of anonymity, the trolls display an exaggerated internal psychical world of anyone grieving – that whilst the majority of pleasantries are true and honest, there is another group of psychical reactions of jealousy, hatred and murderous impulses towards the idealised mourned person and their family.
Blogs of the dying provide interesting reading for anyone with a new diagnosis and their family members. Here, people openly describe their journey towards death. This benefits the blogger in narrating their own life, becoming hyper-aware of their final move toward death and finding meaning in their biography. It also prepares the readers. In reading and familiarising oneself with this journey, one can become maximally prepared for what lies in store and to externalise the ill, fallible self into blog format. This leaves more psychic room for the living, breathing self that wants to spend time with friends and family in the garden.
This paper demonstrates how narcissism leads to death anxiety and defences against it including legacy creation. Having filled up the ideal breast with the ‘good you’, one moves to a position of anxiety that this will die and it is from this realisation that the death instinct arises in social media. This is in contrast to the traditional theory that narcissism is itself a defence against death anxiety and represents either a change in human psyche, a challenge to traditional theory or how social media relations differ from human psychic development.
The thoughts outlined above will require clinical work to corroborate them and may be used by psychoanalysts as a starting point to explore people grieving or near the end of their lives for whom social media plays a large part in their lives. As technology adapts at ever-alarming rates to our human psychic processes, we must be vigilant to keep pace and to be aware that the grieving process is more complex than initially thought.
Dr Matthew Rinaldi MBBS BSc is a trainee psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital with a special interest in both existential psychotherapy and modern methods of communication.
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