New Book Explores Death Online: Review of "Digital Death"

Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age, by editors Christopher M. Moreman and A. David Lewis provides a broad selection of essays revolving around the online behaviors that the living perform to congregate around, mourn, and memorialize the dead. The authors intend for Digital Death to serve as a primer to generate further inquiry into the interplay of the digital sphere and the practices the living enact in the commemoration of those that have died. In this regard, the book succeeds by introducing readers to several topics within this emergent discussion.

A section concerning social media and mourning includes chapters that examine the role and function of deceased users’ Facebook profiles, the changes such profiles undergo when they cease to be a representation of the user’s identity and are instead managed collectively by the Friends who visit the deceased’s profile. Other chapters in this section analyze the impact that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest have had on the ways that users experience and express, and make a spectacle of grief online.

The second part of the book explores memorialization online and questions surrounding ‘legacy.’ The authors of this section’s chapters broadly consider issues of space and place, permanence and temporality, animation and repose, commerce, vandalism, and socially sensitive design in online memorials and digital cemeteries.

The final section of the book focuses on what the editors offer as “Virtual Worlds beyond Death.” This section ventures into diverse and surprising territory. One chapter examines the purpose of and discourse within a fanfiction memorial on LiveJournal commemorating a deceased character, Laura Roslin, and Battlestar Galactica, the televisual universe that she inhabited. Another chapter explores works by Nabokov and Diderot that have anticipated or shaped our understanding of various relationships between biological mortality and media. Another chapter explores player character’s death in video games and its relation to progress loss, saving to retain progress, and the implications of permadeath—the permanent loss of a player’s character and progress. The final chapter of this section explores digital death of MMO’s by examining the rise and fall of massively multiplayer online games. Reflecting on his own experience as an MMO player and digital ethnographer, Bainbridge exposes the mortality of digital worlds which cannot be conserved in the ways that archives and libraries can retain books, recordings and conventional video games stored on discs and cartridges.

Moreman and Lewis do not simply provide an eclectic and accessible collection of essays concerning the myriad ways that mortality, grief, commemoration, and impermanence have shaped and been shaped by their interaction with the digital sphere; this collection provides a set of readings housed in a series of discussions that are already well underway. The work provides an accessible introduction to the subject with ample references to existing scholarship. While the book does not anticipate a well-informed reader, a scholar of digital religion will find a number of insights and questions for future research.