Love, loss and virtual memorials: My brother’s digital legacy

[This personal story from The Guardian (where the original features several more photos) thoughtfully captures some of the changing nature of, and the benefits and concerns raised by, how our presence continues via technology after we die. It also inadvertently provides a contrast to the world-wide remembrances and mourning of Kobe Bryant. –Matthew]

[Image: The last post: Martyn Hett, 29, who died in the Manchester Arena bombing. ‘The mixed-media self-portrait that Martyn created is, in many ways, the real him.’ Credit: PA.]

Love, loss and virtual memorials: my brother’s digital legacy

When Martyn Hett was killed in the Manchester terror attack, his online presence ensured his memory lived on. Dan Hett sifts through a prolific archive

Dan Hett
26 January 2020

When my phone used to light up with my younger brother’s name, I always knew I could safely ignore it if I wanted to – whether it be a self-indulgent video of his latest attempt at Z-list fame or a harsh tweet about a celebrity I’d never heard of. Whatever. I even coined a sarcastic hashtag when replying to him: #nobodycaresmartyn.

But then one nondescript morning in May 2017, my phone lit up with his name on all the notifications – hundreds of them – and there was no way I could ignore any of them.

My brother was one of the 22 people killed in the Manchester Arena terror attack. He was 29. Losing him in this way meant I instantly went from an almost complete inexperience of grief to having to endure the most unexpectedly public form of loss imaginable.

In an ideal world – relatively speaking – you get your affairs in order when you are facing your own mortality, at least when you have the time to think about it. A person knowingly approaching their end writes a will, ties up loose ends and makes their peace. I’m not sure what I’d do – and I strongly suspect Martyn didn’t know either (although, curiously, his dramatic funeral was arranged in perfect accordance with his wishes, as discussed jokingly over many drinks with friends. Be careful what you morbidly joke about, because when your number is up those hazy musings quickly become event directions). The point is that part of making your mortal exit is drawing a line under your existence and leaving your legacy behind. Planting your flag and communicating to future observers: “I was here. I existed.”

But sometimes the universe doesn’t extend you the courtesy of allowing you to shuffle your paperwork and settle your affairs in your own time. Despite this, even though he checked out quite ahead of schedule, in a strange way Martyn had already done some of the work himself, without realising it. Like the rest of my generation, my brother’s existence was eternally self-documented in detail across social media. It is an archive of self that he accidentally left behind and an example of what makes losing someone in the modern world an experience that’s unique to our time.

It’s been bittersweet so far. Although the manner in which he died meant that there wasn’t any time to prepare, he left behind an unfathomably rich web of content – endless tendrils of his digital self, captured in imagery, video, music, writing and a truly breathtaking number of tweets. Although he was impressively prolific, it wasn’t ever completely raw – he carefully curated his online presence as it unfolded (photos taken from his good side strongly preferred, please, and don’t post them online without his sign-off, thank you). The abrupt end to this constant barrage of self-directed content means his online legacy has a stark truth about it that’s more powerful than anything he could have intentionally put together.

The digital mixed-media self-portrait he created in these spaces is, in many ways, the real him, rather than whatever planned content I’m sure he’d have put together had he had the luxury of a little time to work on his media strategy (and believe me, he would have).

That technology underpinned the entire experience wasn’t just in his use of it – it was in our use of it, too. Family, community, press, police, rubberneckers. It was my smartphone that lit up when the attack happened; social media where we put the word out about him being missing and circulated his photograph, and online platforms that ultimately let people know when we’d found out what happened to him.

It was, of course, also social media that worked as an easy vector for fairly hostile press intrusion, something that began literally after the attack and in many ways continues to this day. More importantly, though, social media still plays a critical role in the story: it allows me, my family, his friends and anyone else to explore the digital legacy that he’s built. His social feeds still exist, but the channels are paused – he was writing and broadcasting until the very last moment; his final transmission being a tweet complaining about the toilet queues in the arena. His broadcast stopped there.

He did what many of us do most days – built a digital footprint, filled with imagery and notes and videos and a million other captured moments, fragments, pieces of the trail that make up you as a person (or at least, the version of your online self you’ve chosen to present to the world, be that accurate or not). These fragments of digital ephemera have now become intangible virtual memorials. Some are improvised, like his final tweets that are still replied to by hundreds of other users, years after his death. Others are more planned – Martyn’s personal Facebook page was quickly and officially “memorialised” in a surprisingly sensitive way by Facebook, but (as I’m sure he’d howl laughing at) this contrasts wildly with the wholly inappropriate header image and scathing posts underneath. He was here and then he wasn’t, but everything he’s created remains exactly how he left it, as it will when you or I check out – expected or not.

My brother and I sit squarely in that curious generational overlap where we existed as children without digital technology or the internet, but suddenly had it bestowed upon us as teenagers. This abrupt connection totally re-wired how we existed as young people and, subsequently, as adults. Put another way, I’m old enough to remember nervously calling the house phone of a girlfriend and praying her father didn’t pick up, but at the same time I’m young enough that my angsty teenage diary entries were posted to early online journalling sites, and not scrawled into the traditional hidden notebook. This contrast, this rapid-onset unveiling of our digital selves, has been a huge factor in how and why my generation has taken to social media, and why my brother and I both went full tilt with it from the minute it was something we could use to broadcast with.

Now, in 2020, this progress has had a human impact in ways I didn’t expect. In my pocket is a tiny miracle of engineering that allows me to access the sum of human knowledge, reach out to almost anyone on the planet, and indeed call up a perfect video recording of my departed brother.

The really big companies that shepherd our online existences are incredibly good at what they do, but Martyn’s death has shown me that many digital entities handle tricky things like death and difficult human “stuff” really badly.

I build things with technology for a living, and in my job we sometimes call these things “squishy” problems – awkward human problems that can’t be solved easily with data points and algorithms, and need a human hand (and human empathy) to correct. This is a phenomenon that will affect us more and more as AI and machine-learning technologies take over more of our computational heavy lifting. But it still feels like we’re a long way off knowing how to deal with it.

I found this out in the blackest of ways while standing at the site of the bomb blast in the arena a few weeks later, speechless at the damage. He’d laugh, I’m sure, at the notion of Facebook helpfully asking me to “check in” to let my friends know how much fun I was having…

More broadly, the digital behemoths of social media are beginning to reach a tipping point where the demand for usernames is outstripping supply. Twitter recently announced (and then hastily retracted) a proposed cull of what they deem to be inactive accounts. It’s quite a loaded word though – inactive – isn’t it? The accounts of the lost are certainly inactive in a literal sense, but they still have a reason to be there: they have meaning to people, and that’s what makes them active for so many.

The data can be downloaded and saved, but the notion that one of these inadvertent crystallisations of my brother’s digital self could arbitrarily disappear is a challenging one, not least because there could feasibly be a day where the account is gone and someone else takes the name.

When streams of online activity abruptly cease broadcasting, they don’t disappear, they become vital archives that are, for now, permanent. We’re only a decade or two away from reaching that macabre milestone on long-standing platforms such as Facebook where accounts belonging to dead users outnumber the accounts of the living.

Martyn’s digital legacy continues to inspire and be built upon, even within my own work. Understandably, my creative output effectively ceased when Martyn died. Over time, as we rebuilt, I found my work changing direction, too. For the past few years I’ve been engaged in creating introspective experimental video games and digital artworks that explore grief, loss and, increasingly, the nature of going through this process in a world powered by technology that is in a constant state of flux. I’m now creating bigger and more ambitious work that examines radicalisation and extremism, and our fragmented existences within digital spaces. I’m using technology to not just look at the loss I experienced, but ask how we got here and why any of this happened. Not all of this work is about Martyn, but all of it is because of him – and quietly for him.

Living each moment as if it’s your last is a well-worn cliché, but in 2020 it might be more accurate to settle for updating your status as if it’s your last. Inevitably, without knowing, you’ll have inadvertently written the closing sentence of the terribly self-indulgent story you’ve spent your whole life creating. Was it the grand sign-off you wanted, or a throwaway tweet about the train being late? I wonder which of those would be more truthful, and whether or not this is important to those looking back at it from the future?

I wonder, too, whether those facing their mortality with a little more notice than my brother had may end up with more than the trail of annoying nonsense he left behind by accident. The nonsense is his truth, in a way. I often question whether losing someone is made more difficult, or easier, by the fact I have a rectangle of glass in my pocket that can find the sound of his voice, in seconds, at any time. I can sit with my two young children, watching Uncle Martyn’s idiot grin and hearing his ceaselessly irritating cackling, and when I see them smile back at it, I have my answer.

As a society it feels as if we’re still adjusting to the effects of this constant digital capture, not least when it comes to thorny human problems, like losing someone. We’re rapidly traversing technological and ethical ground that nobody has covered before. For better or worse, we are currently part of the first generation in history to inhabit a world where the living, and increasingly the dead, are documented with such accuracy.

This shift has taken place incredibly quickly, and it’s easy to forget that, within living memory, the sum total of most people’s visual existence was contained in a handful of printed photographs. The rest was passed down as stories, retellings, memories. Over time the clarity faded, the person moved in and out of focus, became invisible. Our enormous advancements in technology (and our willingness to embrace them) mean that, for the first time, that image never blurs or fades, but lives on. The meaning of this is subtle, yet profound: the way we look at death itself has changed for ever. There are ghosts in our machines, and I’m glad we have them.

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