What if you died, but your Twitter account lived on — tweeting, retweeting, and favoriting things as if it were you? A London-based ad agency is working on an artificial intelligence experiment that will do just that.
Creative digital agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine says it is collaborating with researchers at Queen Mary University in order to create LivesOn, an app that generates a digital "twin" that will learn your preferences in life so that it can eventually impersonate you in death. Users appoint an "executor" of their LivesOn "will" who has the power to switch on the app if the user dies, re-animating his or her digital persona.
"When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting," is LivesOn's tagline. "Welcome to your social afterlife."
"When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting."
It seems almost too creepy to be real. The announcement also came out immediately after the British television series Black Mirror, a technocentric thriller similar to The X-Files, aired a spooky episode about a woman who starts communicating with a realistic avatar based on her dead husband's digital footprint. Skeptics wondered if LivesOn was a viral marketing stunt, but the creators insist they've been working on the idea for a year and simply piggybacked on the episode for some extra publicity.
There is no demonstrable product yet, so it's uncertain whether LivesOn can manage more verisimilitude than the lifelike spambot @horse_ebooks or mashup tweet generator That can be my next tweet!. "We are at the very beginning of the build process," Dave Bedwood, creative partner at Lean Mean Fighting Machine, said in an email. "This site is very much for people to sign up now, get a second twitter account, private to them, and just watch it learn and grow. As A.I advances, then maybe we will then get into it being able to copy syntax. When you die, if you've had this account for a long time, it may be able to keep tweeting as you."
In the end we're all just zero and ones.— LivesOn (@_Liveson) February 14, 2013
Around 1,000 people have signed up to be notified when LivesOn launches, according to the company.
The idea of tweeting after death is exceedingly morbid, but the question of how to handle our digital legacies is increasingly urgent. Those who die suddenly leave behind abandoned Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and other online versions of themselves, frozen in time. The government now recommends appointing an online executor as part of general estate planning: someone who has all your passwords, knows what you want to happen to your accounts, and receives a copy of a death certificate, since some sites require proof of death in order to shut down an account.
There are a number of companies hoping to help people manage their digital afterlives. Intellitar purports to generate a moving image of you that can live in "virtual eternity," while If I Die lets you record a video that appointed "trustees" can publish on Facebook if you happen to die. DeadSocial, an app that lets you schedule messages to post on Twitter and Facebook after death, has proposed keeping the basic service free but charging $500 for a premium version. Update: DeadSocial says it no longer has plans to offer a paid version, and is instead working with end-of-life charities to make the service free for all users. LivesOn has not proposed a price, but has said it is "not out to make a buck."
And back in June, publicist Daniel Cohen described a do-it-yourself solution using the Twitter client Hootsuite to schedule tweets in the distant future.
How to handle our digital legacies is an increasingly urgent question
This kind of automated posting might be against some social media sites' terms of service. Neither LivesOn nor DeadSocial has gotten the official go-ahead from Twitter, which did not respond to The Verge's requests for comment. There's also the obvious fact that once you die, you lose control of your social media presence, no matter how many tweets you've scheduled in advance. Internet companies tend to mutate, grow, and even die off themselves. There's no guarantee that any of these entitites — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, other social media, as well as LivesOn and its ilk — will continue to exist in their present form. Twitter could be bought by News Corp, and degrade into a spammy teenybopper haven. Instagram could cease to exist. Facebook could descend further into the Dark Side and start inserting ads for Pepsi into your posthumous status updates. LivesOn could run out of money and be forced to sell to a life insurance company.
And yet, there is demand for the service. DeadSocial claims to have thousands of users signed up for its launch. The startup was inspired by a public service announcement about prostate cancer starring the English entertainer Bob Monkhouse. The ad aired after his death of the same disease. "What killed me, kills one man per hour in Britain," his televised ghost says.
Proponents say postmortem social media would allow celebrities to publish unreleased material and confess things they couldn't say while alive; the less famous could use the apps to send a loved one a yearly birthday message or remind friends to treasure their time on Earth. "Why should we stop creating content when we die?" DeadSocial's founder James Norris asked in an interview with Forbes.
Of course, not everyone loves the idea of generating — or seeing — zombie status updates. In the episode of Black Mirror, the main character finds herself unable to find closure because her husband's persona lingers on. "Whoever is in the marketing department should be fired," former presidential candidate Herman Cain said of LivesOn on his Orlando talk show.
Not everyone loves the idea of zombie status updates
This idea of using social media data to create personas that can live on after death seems to be popping up everywhere. Just last month, media specialist and technology speaker Tom Scott created a thought experiment called "When Facebook Resurrected the Dead" in which he imagines an initial backlash followed by eventual acceptance. "The first posthumously written album, by a simulated Michael Jackson, went straight to number one," he says in a faux video report. "The lawsuit over who gets the royalties is still ongoing."
That's not to say that preserved digital personas are a new concept; the notion has been thoroughly explained, naturally, in science fiction.