Death and life in cyberspace

UPDATING: Natalie Murphy's husband Greg maintains her Facebook profile and says it has mainly been met positively by her friends.
UPDATING: Natalie Murphy's husband Greg maintains her Facebook profile and says it has mainly been met positively by her friends.

It's hard to kill off an online persona, writes Nicola Russell.

I was using Facebook this past week when an update popped up in my newsfeed from a friend.

Nothing unusual. Except they were no longer alive.

Welcome to the age of cyber immortality.

Family had decided to keep alive the Facebook account of my dead friend, posting updates from the afterlife. To some it is an ongoing tribute. To others it can be an intensely uncomfortable experience.

More than 2 million New Zealanders use Facebook and given that 29,710 died last year, a conservative estimate by Fairfax is that at least 600 Facebook users will pass away each year, meaning the trend of cyber-zombies is set to increase.

It is such a growing issue that the New Zealand Law society has released a policy paper on it. Among its recommendations is that anyone active online includes a note in their will about what should happen to their "digital assets" after death.

It even suggests leaving a record of your passwords so an executor can access your online accounts.

Facebook itself has a specific "death policy" and will permanently delete profiles of the deceased if asked.

Or it will "memorialise" profiles, leaving the wall open for friends to pay respects but the account is barred from any login attempts.

Psychologist Nathan Gaunt said online memorials were a double-edged sword.

"I've encountered both. I've seen where people have been able to come together on an international level to honour someone if they are unable to make the funeral, like a living memorial, but I have also heard of cases overseas where things have gone bad.

"People have posted nasty things which has been very distressing for family members or there has been a dispute between family members and friends that has been played out on Facebook in a very public way."

The husband of Auckland cancer patient Natalie Murphy, who lost her public battle with breast cancer in December, has kept his wife's profile going.

Greg Murphy obtained Natalie's password after her death and updates her page regularly, so it seems to users that Natalie herself is still posting comments.

He sees it as a way to continue Natalie's work in raising awareness for breast cancer prevention, and networking for fundraising events.

"There is a lot of power in that network, there's other things that can be done there, not just for me. I intend to do a blog from the partner's side and there is also other fundraisers coming up that will utilise that network."

But there is also a more personal reason. Murphy sees the profile as an online memorial of Natalie's life that his two-year-old son, Jackson, can view when he is older.

"Particularly with Timeline kicking in, it's a fantastic view through her life. Jackson in 20 years being able to see all this correspondence is really powerful."

He acknowledges a few friends have been shocked when Natalie appeared in their newsfeed but most have greeted it with positivity.

"They have utilised a lot of the photos and I have had requests to put up more. A lot of them are interested to make sure Jackson and I are OK, so in many ways I am obligated to do that."

However Murphy, said maintaining both his and Natalie's accounts takes time. He still gets at least three requests a day to be friends with Natalie and "hundreds" of messages. "I remember the day she died there were 300 requests waiting to be approved."

The messages are from friends and strangers seeking connection with someone who has been through the loss of a loved one through cancer.

"In many ways I've become a bit of a counsellor. A lot of them are 'Hey, you don't know me and look my mum is going through the same thing, we feel really sorry for you', or 'We need help fundraising, how do you do it'."

The process is not without some strange encounters. "There is a darker side to it. People just love getting friends, even some guys who have popped on there and tried to hit on Nat and I'm reading it thinking 'What are you doing?'."

Murphy didn't discuss with Natalie what would happen to her account after her death but believes she would want her work carried on. "I never said what are all your passwords? I had to sleuth my way through, I am from an IT background so that helped."

Murphy is realistic about Natalie's page long-term.

"All those photos are safe. If my house burns down, those photos are safe [but] I have to gauge what more can I achieve here and, on a personal level – how long do you keep doing this before you let yourself move on.

"That bends your mind and I'm not panicked about it yet but in due course I have to move on in some way."


Go to Facebook help centre (top right of browser-help)

Type in search bar: How do I report a deceased user or an account that needs to be memorialised?

Follow the links to the form.

Sunday Star Times