In the past week alone, an estimated 56,000 Facebook users have passed away. That’s just under 3 million users a year who are leaving behind a plethora of digital mementos — which means that after ten years of Facebook, an estimated 30 million profiles are for deceased users.

Digital memorials are already a thing. Apps like, If I Die, and 1000 Memories offer everything from an online grave site to pre-written emails that are sent after you’ve clicked your last.

What would Twitter followers of Philip Seymour Hoffman think if they saw post-mortem tweets in the dead actor’s style?But the recently released LivesOn is a new app that takes digital memorials in a new direction: LivesOn will continue tweeting in your stead after you die. And not just in your stead, but also in your style and tone with content you’d probably have tweeted about. It will be as if you had never died.

LivesOn hopes to be a post-mortem version of What Would I Say?, an app that appeared all over Facebook last year. Like What Would I Say?, LivesOn analyzes the tweets from your living self and then uses algorithms to generate new tweets to match. You’ll be gone but your tweets will go on.

As What Would I Say? users know, the accuracy isn’t all that encouraging. “It will most likely be gobbledygook to begin with,” admitted a LivesOn spokesman. But over time, with user feedback, LivesOn believes that it can refine its algorithms to be surprisingly lifelike.

LivesOn’s aspirations strike some people as being a bit morbid, which is understandable. The computer-generated statuses from What Would I Say? were bizarre mashups of status updates, and they were entertaining for that reason. But what would Twitter followers of Philip Seymour Hoffman think if they saw post-mortem tweets in the dead actor’s style? Who wants to read the simulated tweets of dead people?

But is LivesOn any more haunting than other technologies we currently use?


We’ve always kept objects that remind us of those we’ve loved, e.g., photos, mementos, old letters, glasses on a night stand, a recliner by the TV, gardening tools, books. LivesOn is just one more memory device. One more receipt.

What cameras have done for our visage, computers may someday do for our personalities. But instead of using lenses, shutters, and film, LivesOn will use data, programming, and algorithms. The methods and the outcomes are different, but the same motive drives them both. Simulated images. Simulated personalities. Two facets of who we are as human beings. Both incomplete. Both artificial. Both striving for a kind of immortality.

Using computers to immortalize ourselves shouldn’t be too surprising, either. We already use computers and other machines for life support in hospitals. We swallow high-tech drugs to work inside our bodies and postpone decay. Some people even hope to one day download their brains into “non-biological” ones. LivesOn is simply one more attempt at an artificial immortality.

Photographs and post-mortem tweets pursue the same goals by different means. Perhaps someday we’ll even be able to carry on simulated conversations with them. (The recent film, Her, in fact portrays this very thing in collecting the writings of a British-born philosopher and reconstructing his personality to interact virtually.)

Seeing the LivesOn app as a newer version of the camera helps us see that LivesOn isn’t really so far-fetched. On the other hand, it puts photos in a new light, too: they’re a bit morbid as well. Simulated images of people who have died hardly differ from simulated tweets from them; we’ve simply become acclimated to photos. Culturally, we assume they represent real places, people, and moments in time and so we trust them and don’t give them a second thought. These common beliefs are most clear when someone breaks them, doctoring the photo of yet another celebrity or exaggerating the horror of a war zone. Yet these shared expectations weren’t always in place.

Jed Brubaker, a PhD candidate who has studied bereavement in social media, agrees: “I’m sure there was a time when encountering a photograph of someone who had died was particularly upsetting, particularly if you didn’t know what a photograph was.” It will take time for our culture to develop similar assumptions about post-mortem tweets. They may seem morbid or tasteless to us now, but years from now, others may shrug at post-mortem tweets as easily and we do photographs today.


By comparing LivesOn to the camera, we can also think more clearly about the app’s potential impact on grief. LivesOn simulates personalities instead of images. For some people, the opportunity to hear one more word or have one more conversation, and be reminded of that comfortable familiarity — that opportunity is too good to pass up. Who wouldn’t want the simulated tweets of people we’ve loved?

Others decry these innovations, saying that LivesOn will prevent the bereaved from truly grieving, or will at least make it harder. If the dead live on, will the grief ever end? Will the bereaved ever really move on? Whether we look at photographs or read LivesOn tweets, our grief changes if we have those things in our lives. It may help us keep their memory alive, but it may keep the pain alive, too. Or LivesOn may produce a tweet that seems off-color or out of character, leaving the bereaved to wonder, “Why would my loved one have said that?” Could post-mortem tweets reshape how we remember the deceased?

Whatever simulated immortality LivesOn promises to the deceased, it guarantees something else to those left behind: new factors to grieving. “There are new kinds of grief [caused by] the interconnected nature of social media,” Brubaker says, “and they’re new because these are types of connections that maybe would not have persisted if it were not for social media.”

LivesOn may give the deceased the last word, but it complicates the grief of those who remain. Just as Facebook has changed how we communicate, if LivesOn reaches a wide audience, it will change how we grieve. And we won’t have any choice but to deal with the living dead.

img via Wayne Wilkinson