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The rise and fall of online immortality services and the mediation of mortality in the digital age

Kiel, Paula (2023) The rise and fall of online immortality services and the mediation of mortality in the digital age. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004530


This thesis considers how digital communication mediates mortality in contemporary western societies by examining online services geared towards dealing with one’s future death. The study’s point of departure is society’s fundamental role in mediating mortality, understood as humans’ awareness of their own inevitable future death. I consider the mediation of mortality as a negotiation of an annihilation-continuity dialectic and establish a conceptual and practical link between media practices and practices of symbolic transcendence. Specifically, the thesis examines the following questions: (1) What practices of leaving traces do online immortality services construct and facilitate? (2) What posthumous relationships between the future-dead and future-survivors are constructed and facilitated by online immortality services? (3) What digital media myths and social imaginaries are evoked by and underlie the practices constructed and facilitated by online immortality services? To address these questions, the thesis employs a multimodal analysis of forty-six online immortality services and analyses twenty in-depth interviews with the founders of these websites. The analysis shows that online immortality services promise their users extensive control over their symbolic posthumous endurance. Yet the thesis argues that online immortality services ironically fail to ‘live up’ to their promise in the face of the very same technological, social, and commercial conditions and imaginaries that led to their emergence. As online immortality services are themselves dying (i.e. failing commercially and going offline), this project becomes one of preservation and conservation of unsuccessful contemporary attempts to thwart death through media. Thus, it highlights the significance of studying failed technologies and vernacular media histories.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2023 Paula Kiel
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Supervisor: Orgad, Shani and Mulvin, Dylan

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