Heidi Ebert (MA 2013)
Why did you decide on Waterloo?
I didn't consider any other options! When I finished my BA, I knew I had gone as far as I wanted to go with literary studies. I loved it, but I wasn’t excited or committed enough to a particular topic to continue. I didn’t think I could add anything new to the conversation. And while my interests and goals had changed, I couldn’t see a way to pursue them without starting from scratch. So I quite happily took my leave of academia. I spent a year teaching in France, then started working in book publishing. I hadn’t completely abandoned the idea of continuing my studies, but I was looking for a way to combine the theoretical tools I’d gathered so far with something more hands-on, which I didn’t think existed. Then I heard about XDM—on Twitter, fittingly and I couldn't pass it up.
Can you tell us a bit about your research project?
I was exploring what we do with digital objects, specifically Facebook profiles, after the people who create them die. I tried to situate Facebook on an expanding continuum of memorial practice and to show that while a profile may temporarily transform into a space for mourning and a memorial object, it becomes an autobiographical tool again quite quickly. Because some visitors to a dead person’s profile will write self-narratives as though the intended recipient is still alive, the profile’s subject shifts: the original content—the story the dead person created but can no longer add to—is gradually overwritten.
This was a research-creation project, which means I designed a digital object-to-think-with—an animated, online memorial space—as a means of thinking through these ideas. It didn’t end up being feasible to build the site, but I mapped out many of the technical details and learned some of the software I would need to produce it. The site design was the frame I needed to shape my research.
What surprised you most in your research?
This idea that people continue to post on a dead person’s profile as though nothing has changed. I noticed this on the page I used as a case study, which is what inspired the project in the first place. Barring the mourning-specific Rest in Peace–type posts, it can be really difficult to recognize that a Facebook user has died, since very little actually changes in terms of the behaviour that takes place there. Some visitors will post narratives of everything from major life events to mundane details. In some ways I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, because one of the qualities of text-based online communication is that there isn’t necessarily an expectation of immediate reply. That’s one of the reasons the experience of using Facebook doesn’t actually change much if you are writing to a dead person. It may also partly be because (some scholars have argued recently) that it's because people truly believe their loved ones live online; for them, the Internet is the new afterlife. That was a shocking discovery for me!
Given the topic, were you relieved to finally step away from the research?
I was. I didn’t realize how much emotional work I was doing in addition to the scholarly work. I spent almost two full years thinking deeply about death, mourning and memorial and about what will happen to the digital objects I’ve created when I die. When I submitted the project, I was well and truly ready to take a rest from studying death. And from Facebook.
When you tell people about this project, does everyone have a story?
Yes! It was a great topic for cocktail parties, if a bit morbid, because everyone always wanted to add a piece to the narrative I was trying to build. A few people had “ghost stories” about a spouse or a child taking over a dead person’s profile without making the action explicit. I’d say the majority of people I spoke with about the project had at least one dead Facebook friend. And that experience will only become more common.
What are you doing now?
I'm the copy editor at Toronto Life magazine, and a freelance editor and researcher.
And because I can't help myself, what are you currently reading?
I'm reading a book called Here We Are Among the Living: A Memoir in Emails. It’s by Samantha Bernstein, who is one of Irving Layton’s daughters.
This profile was originally published on September 2013.