A recent blog post in The Guardian, “Why Death is Not the End of Your Social Media Life,” describes how “social media is…bridging the gap between the living and the dead” through digital services such as LivesOn and DeadSoci.al. The former—with its mildly witty tagline “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”—builds a profile of you based on your tweets, who you’re following, who’s following you, and so forth. After you have exhaled for the last time, the Twitter app LivesOn takes over where you left off and keeps “you” tweeting from across mortality’s threshold. DeadSoci.al, a “free social media tool,” takes a slightly different approach by allowing the user to craft her or his own “digital legacy,” which links to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and would be deployed upon notification (and presumably verification) that one has died.
As someone whose research centers on matters of death and the dead in early modern English drama and whose pedagogy is aimed at strengthening and expanding written and oral communication skills across a range of media—not to mention, someone who’s more than a bit fidgety over the inevitability of her own expiration—I am intrigued by this technology and its applications. While I don’t see myself creating a posthumous social media “me,” my immersion in my subject matter has my mind abuzz with all sorts of imaginings. Will my FB newsfeed someday include others’ posthumous updates? And just what might such updates say: “It’s your birthday, live it up” “I know who’s going to win the election,” “Dante was right?” Will my own updates be “liked” by assorted dead people in the future? Part of the fascination with these new tools, of course, comes from the creepiness that surrounds them—one reader comments that this turn in social media is “pretty creepy,” while another ventures, “this definitely has a certain weird appeal.” Of course it does because the dead don’t remain entirely dead. We don’t let them. They’re part of our individual and collective psyches.
At the same time that we try to shield ourselves from the dead by limiting our contact with corpses (we have created hospitals, hospice centers, and funeral homes to take care of what our forebears routinely did), and by dieting and exercising our way towards death-at-least-a-little-deferred, we remain pretty drawn to them. The popularity of forensic television dramas such as CSI, films such as the Twilight Saga, and exhibitions like Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds series underscore our simultaneous revulsion and fascination with death and the dead. LivesOn and DeadSoci.al extend this connection—that is, the connection between the living and the dead, which cultures have sought via the creation of Purgatory, the belief in the visions of sages and clairvoyants, the establishment of philanthropic endowments, et al. In our seemingly endless quest to maintain communication between the living and the dead, the world of social media—which draws together at least half the world’s population—is a logical addition to this constellation. These latest forays in social media also speak directly to our fear of annihilation and our indignation over the cessation of personal identity.
I’ve been giving thought, as well, to the classroom and how the idea of tweeting or updating posthumously might be used in writing assignments. Admittedly, nothing has really crystallized yet, but I find myself returning to an example set by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Twitter-driven 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet, titled Such Tweet Sorrow. Taking place in real-time over the space of five weeks, six principal characters (Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, Friar Lawrence, Mercutio, and Tybalt) tweeted improvised lines, which were supplemented by characters’ tweets on current social and political events, and tweets from the actors reflecting on their roles and responding to audience tweets. What if Hamlet took to Twitter or Facebook? How might his meditations on death read in 140 characters? What could we learn from rephrasing or supplementing these vast thoughts within such tight parameters? What sorts of photos would he post on FB and who would some of his FB friends be? Imagine Hamlet Sr. tweeting from Purgatory or Gertrude’s closet, Polonius continuing to insist himself from behind the arras and from his plight as “supper,” Ophelia updating her status as she floats away or as Hamlet and Laertes come to blows in her grave? How might the study of early modern beliefs about death and the dead be enhanced by role-playing through social media and what would these classroom tweets and updates reveal about our own thoughts on the subject? By directly weaving their voices into the play, exchanging tweets, and sharing insights and questions coming out of these tweets on a course blog, students could produce a rich conversation from which to draw their own questions towards a thesis statement for their papers. As I continue to play with the shape and learning outcomes of this assignment, I’ll let myself be guided by the idea that it should stir the students’ sense of investment in their writing. This, plus the belief that their voices can productively comingle with language that is often thought of as arcane and closed off to postmodern ears, eyes, and mouths.