In most cultures in history people have constructed their own view about the Otherworld or the realm of the dead, a place where the souls of the departed in some sense ‘live on’. In digital culture the Internet is more and more seen as a place of the Otherworld, a place where souls and family members or friends (or pets) who have died continue to dwell. Many people nowadays still believe in another place somewhere where the souls of their loved ones will go to. The expression on the Internet of some of these people in the form of images of candles, stars, portals, rainbows and angels among others, explains the significance that people put on the Internet as a dimension that actually exists. This expression can be seen as being not purely of a religious nature but also as a symbolic or metaphorical expression, all of which can give meaning to life, and can thus be regarded as being in the realm of folklore, arguably, a manifestation of folklore on the Internet.
The personal computer must be regarded as a medium with a cultural history shaped more by its users and less by its inventors.
Olia Lialina, Digital Folklore (2009)
Personal Computers (PC), digital media and online networks have become increasingly integrated into people’s daily lives since the early nineties. These ‘new’ media offered many opportunities and new ways for people to express themselves, and, as these became more and more commonplace objects and processes in daily life, they gradually became ‘e-meshed’ with people’s emotional lives. The social context of grief and remembrance for example has now begun to take place in a digital context too, instead of as it had been in the past, in family circles. According to Hutchings (2012), elements of the contemporary process of grieving take place in new electronic spaces where grief can be communicated. Family members and friends of a deceased person gather around online digital archives of pictures, candles, stories and video’s to grieve. The memorial place of a person becomes ‘alive’ in a digital sense, and forms it could be said, a virtual gathering place where space is simulated.
Robert Dobler uses cyber-ethnography as a way to approach the folklore on the Internet and he has identified a number of rituals that have emerged through the interaction of people with their PC’s on the Internet. For example, he has observed and described how personal pages on social network sites like Facebook and MySpace are turned into virtual altars after a person dies. These places of ‘spiritual communion’ become a meeting place for the bereaved and often the website is turned into an online book of remembrance. These digital places of worship are visited regularly and therefore could be termed places for rituals (or folklore) as they are symbolic activities that give a sense of meaning to people. The bereaved place virtual flowers or candles and write poems or farewell notes on the webpage. This behaviour apparently indicates that there is a strong desire to make real contact with the deceased person; almost everyone communicates in a direct form to the deceased person. Dobler (2009) describes this transformation of a personal webpage as: “dynamics of the transition of spontaneous shrines into the virtual world of the internet”. In this way the virtual altar serves as a bridge between de deceased and the living.
As to why the Internet is seen as the Otherworld, Olia Lialina gives an explanation in her book Digital Folklore (2009), in essence that people see in the Internet a connection with space. In Lialina’s view, the space atmosphere symbolizes a hope in the future, that it is bringing us to new dimensions and to other galaxies. The step to connect the concept of space with the place where souls reside can be quite easily made by some people; some remembrance websites use the star as a symbol to represent the deceased one. Deceased persons or pets are believed by some people to live in another state quite similar to the past life that they had on earth. Gustavsson (2013) describes in his article: ‘Death and Bereavement on the Internet in Sweden and Norway‘ how many people see a continuation of this ‘futuristic’ life on the Internet, almost intuitively. The idea of a future existence in heaven is mostly absent; with most references made to dead pets and in some cases to deceased people.
Different images appear to be used on different occasions relating to remembrance on the Internet. The so called ‘rainbow bridge’ to another world is mostly used in cases of deceased cats, dogs or other pets; somehow, people find this symbolism more suitable for animals. However, according to Gustavsson, both pets and deceased people can be depicted as entities which have acquired ‘angel status’. Little children are often depicted as butterflies because their fragile nature and ephemeral existence can easily be compared to that of a child. The picture below is a good example of a memorial page where deceased children are symbolized as butterflies in a garden. To some people ‘the Internet’ apparently holds a mystical status in their beliefs and can be easily and almost naturally adopted as an extension and deepening of a person’s belief system. It also appears that some people even believe that both pets and loved ones that have died will read everything that people write on the Internet. It must also be emphasised though that many people don’t believe at all in the Internet as the Otherworld, but their behaviour towards it reveals the opposite.
Formerly the cementery, church or house-altars were places of contact with the deceased. In modern popular culture highway memorials or other public memorials have become treated as places of connection with the Otherworld in the physical world: the place were someone exhaled their last breath. Increasingly though the Internet is becoming the popular place for contact with elements being taken from the physical world, like candles, flowers, a central portrait and the messages of condolences and used on the Internet in some form or other. The sacred aura that web design can create, with the effect of space and eternity can be seen in total contrast to the often temporary nature of the websites themselves. A new element is the use of audio and video on memorial webpages that, triggered by the visitor, brings the paradoxical feeling of being ‘living and real’. In this way the deceased are kept ‘alive’ and the bereaved can feel more connected. Thus, the non-tangible memorial webpage has in some sense become the single most important connection between the living and the dead. This is perhaps a radical change in the culture of grief and remembrance, where the Internet can be seen to be starting to play a significant and intriguing role, a role that will almost certainly develop and mutate in the increasingly digitised world.
- Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied, Digital Folklore Reader (2009).
- Robert Dobler, ‘Ghosts in the Machine: Mourning the MySpace Dead’ in: Trevor J. Blank, Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World (Colorado 2009) 175-193.
- Tim Hutchings, Wiring Death: Dying, Grieving and Remembering on the Internet (2012).
- Anders Gustavsson, ‘Death and Bereavement on the Internet in Sweden and Norway’, in: Folklore, Vol. 53 (2013).