Tweeting from beyond the grave – why sometimes it’s good not to talk

As the debate, and legal challenges, continue over who should have rights over a person’s Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts after death, the whole area of digital legacy is suddenly being thrust centre stage.

While it’s easy to see why stopping abuse and masquerading on accounts where the originator has passed on is an important area for legal review, another strand of digital legacy is now emerging – the idea of continuing to converse with the dead via their social media accounts.

Charlie Brooker dramatised this exact point in the Be Right Back episode of Black Mirror (Channel 4) where we saw a bereaved Martha keeping in touch with her dead partner, Ash, via a predictive software package. Soon, Ash is emailing, posting status updates and even telephoning Martha from beyond the grave, courtesy of his ‘social exhaust’.

The whole point of Black Mirror’s dystopian slant is that it’s not that futuristic – it could happen sooner than we think. The same week Be Right Back was screened, a new app, ‘LivesOn’, was announced which will apparently allow users to continue tweeting from beyond the grave using knowledge of the user’s online history to create an ongoing virtual character after death. The tagline is ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.’

Apps such as ‘LivesOn’ have been likened to a Ouija board or a séance, but I’d always thought, if you believe in such things, you’d actually be hoping to speak to an enduring spirit. With digital legacy, there’s no such pretence – you know it’s not real from the outset; it’s light from a dead star.

But what’s possibly more disconcerting, from a technology point of view, is that your inanimate avatar will, in all probability, unwittingly dispense unintended slights, criticisms and life-shattering announcements as it mashes together the algorithms of the past. Old messages may become mangled like an online translation service – ‘Leaving for home now. Love you baby’ from someone’s timeline may re-emerge from the void as ‘leaving you and setting up new home as having a baby with my lover.’ A historic message saying ‘Hitting the hay early. Hope you’re having a great night out with your mother’ could come back from the afterlife as ‘ It has to come out – I’ve been sleeping with your mother. She’s a real goer.’

Digital legacy in a broader context contends that the ability to look at the timeline of a decedent is the same as looking at old photos or videos. That may have some validity if the accounts are frozen, but not if they can live on, and not if anybody and everyone can view them. Surely the key advantage of being the direct benefactor of a digital legacy is the ability to hit the ‘delete account’ button?

In my novel A Matter of Life and Death Farren Mortimer makes his fortune by selling ideas to keep the memory of the departed alive, not by trying to pretend the dead are still here. In that context, conducting cyber chatter with cadavers looks more like a celebration of death than a celebration of life.

Some may argue that pretending to conduct conversations with the dearly departed is merely a coping mechanism, but to me it’s like Norman Bates keeping his mother in the fruit cellar. Sometimes it’s good not to talk….

What was that you said, Mother?