Guest Column by Bjorn Nansen

April 14 / 134

How is the internet changing commemoration practices?

As the internet has changed the customs and rituals of everyday social life, it has also changed the customs and rituals associated with death and commemoration. 

A project investigating how digital media is used to commemorate the dead is being led by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, the School of Social and Political Sciences and the Department of Computing and Information Systems.

It is not surprising that digital commemoration emerged as the internet became readily accessible and an integral part of people’s communicative practices. 

Yet, forms of digital commemoration have since diversified and now includes: tribute pages and memorials hosted on specialist memorial websites; blogs created to commemorate loved ones; videos posted on YouTube; repurposed and memorialised pages on Facebook and other social networking sites, and virtual world commemorations and ceremonies.

There is a growing body of research addressing issues around the dead in online environments. Previous studies have explored topics such as: the practical management of digital assets and estates; how social support and mourning takes shape in online networks; and how the dead continue to persist and participate within the platforms and protocols of social media.

This research shows that rather than sequestering the dead in dedicated spaces, the dead continue to maintain a social presence online.

The project builds on previous research using a series of case studies to explore the interrelated cultural practices, digital platforms, and social formations associated with digital commemoration. 

This makes an important contribution to the social and cultural study of commemoration – and the controversies that surround it – in our increasingly digitally mediated environment.

This project is investigating the ways commemorative practices take shape across networks of digital platforms, and in relation to the digital augmentation of physical environments. The issues investigated include:

the commercialisation of death through online services such as Deathswitch;

the use of social media sites to commemorate the dead, such as photographs tagged with “#funeral” on the photo-sharing application Instagram;

the commemorative practices associated with virtual worlds such as forms of spontaneous commemoration and makeshift memorials in the game EVE Online; and

the emerging use of digital applications to augment gravestones, such as  QR-enabled headstones.

A comparative analysis of cultural practices across these different digital platforms will show the ways material ecologies and social collaborations of commemoration are being re-imagined and re-negotiated.

The project team includes Dr Bjorn Nansen, Research Fellow in the Department of Computing and Information Systems, Dr Michael Arnold, a Senior Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science Program in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Martin Gibbs, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information System and Dr Tamar Kohn, a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Sciences. 

The Digital Commemoration project is an Australian Research Council Discovery funded project. 

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