When Reeva Steenkamp, girlfriend of Olympian Oscar Pistorius, was killed on Valentine’s Day, her Twitter feed—like many in the last few years who’ve met an untimely end-—was thoroughly analyzed by the day’s end. Her last tweet echoed with tragic irony: “What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow??? #getexcited #ValentinesDay”
Jamie Forrest and Michael McWaters took note. The web developer and user-experience architect duo had been working on a website called The Tweet Hereafter for almost a year, and decided it was time to unveil it. Their concept is as simple as the content is heavy: it’s a compilation of the last tweets of the famous and recently deceased. Familiar names like Internet activist Aaron Swartz and singers Jenni Rivera and Mindy McCready grace the list, which includes the date and cause of death.
The idea was sparked when conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart died last spring, practically in the midst of a Twitter feud with another blogger. On Twitter, McWaters joked that if he were to die at that moment he sure wouldn’t want his last post to be about Breitbart.
Social media has become the all-inclusive voice of the 21st century, and our digital footprint will certainly outlast our physical one. So, naturally, theirs isn’t the only project investigating the possibilities of post-death online personas. Another service is taking it one step further, investigating the possibility of tweeting from beyond the grave. Last week, a British developer announced he was bringing posthumous communication, normally confined to psychics and ouija boards, to the digital age.
Dave Bedwood’s project, called LivesOn, studies participants’ writing patterns in order to continue their Twitter stream after death. The service, which will launch in March, creates a separate Twitter account (your handle plus “_LIVESON”) that will learn the patterns of your personal one, in the hope of someday replicating things you would watch or read and post about. At that point an executor will be in charge of activating the service. Until then, its main goal is to be a tool for the living, clueing you in to content you might like just as Netflix and Amazon do now. Bedwood calls the project “a sign of our times” and expects to expand to other social-media platforms as the service evolves.
“It feels evolutionary in a way, inevitable that man will use technology to somehow live on,” says Bedwood, whose advertising firm, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, has partnered with Queen Mary University in London to develop LivesOn. “This to me, is no weirder than any afterlife that has been promised by organized religion, or hell that has been threatened,” he wrote in an email. “On another more ‘weird’ level, it would be very interesting to get lots of people signed up for this afterlife—what if with technological advances it became more of an afterlife than the one promised by religion?”
As social media is mined for postmortem information, the idea of choosing the perfect weighty and wise reflection to sum up your entire existence at that final moment is becoming archaic. But last words, combining our obsession with death and fame, have been a societal fascination for centuries. They are a privilege given to, and duly recorded of, death-row inmates before execution. They have been used to impart profound wisdom and humorous mockery. They have been the subject of multiple books and legends, and an inspiration to myriad speculations about both the meaning of life and the mystery of the world beyond. Who can forget Steve Jobs’s enigmatic last words? “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
In popular culture, last words have pervaded as a moment of truth, a display of character, a time to reveal long-held secrets. “O, but they say, the tongues of dying men enforce attention, like deep harmony: where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain: for they breathe truth,” William Shakespeare wrote in King Richard II. In 1889, the seriousness with which last words were regarded prompted Mark Twain to write a satirical article titled “Last Words of Great Men,” in which he created some fitting last words for important figures.
But to Forrest, the Tweet Hereafter’s creator, Twitter and Facebook have become a truer mirror to how we live—an honest and candid flow rather than a singular, painstakingly thought-through sentence. “There was this idea that [last words] had to be something profound or humorous that would leave a legacy, I think what this project does is it undermines that idea. It shows us that we can’t predict when we’re going to die necessarily, and whatever we were doing before that is what we leave as the last thing we said,” he says. “That’s more like how life is lived as opposed to a crescendo that builds up to this final statement.”
Despite his recently developed morbid routine of scouring Wikipedia for new and notable deaths to add to his website, Forrest says he hasn’t thought about tweaking his tweeting to profound witticisms, just in case each one could be his last. “If what’s on my mind right before I die happens to be the toast I ate that morning, that’s the reality of the situation,” he says. But he doesn’t talk about the concept flippantly. Forrest views posthumous social-media profiles as a reminder of how fragile life can be. The frozen-in-time Facebook page of a friend who recently passed away jarred him into this realization. “In most cases you’re not going to get the chance to leave a concluding remark on these sites. You can’t bring the story you’re putting on Facebook to a close,” he says. “You feel like you want one more tweet that says, ‘OK, it’s been good,’ but you don’t get that.”
Maybe Karl Marx said it best. “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” he allegedly yelled at a maid who asked for his dying utterance. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, we’re certainly saying a lot. Just take caution before posting about what you ate for breakfast if you don’t want it to immortalize you. “That's why I always tweet, 'The horror, the horror,' before I go to sleep,” a friend jokingly messaged me in response to this article. You never know.