Welcome to 'Beyond the Grid', a VICE UK column about Instagram. Content warning: This piece includes discussion of suicide, mental health, death.
Earlier this year, Ekaterina Karaglanova had around 85,000 followers on Instagram. The 24-year-old influencer was based in Moscow, mainly, but would regularly document her international travels online. Her photos looked idyllic – sparkling oceans in Santorini, snow-capped mountains in the Bavarian Alps, matte blue skies in Dubai – with each post picking up thousands of likes. But on the 22nd of July 2019, the photos stopped. Days later, her body was found in a suitcase, after she'd been fatally stabbed in her own apartment. Not long afterwards, a video was released by Russian police in which an ex-boyfriend appears to confess to the murder. Although it's not clear whether he had a lawyer present when the video was recorded, or under what circumstances the confession was obtained.
Karaglanova’s profile remains as it was when she was alive, except now it’s filled with broken heart emojis and people writing “RIP” in the comment sections. She has also amassed an added 30,000 followers since her death. What exactly people want from the account she's left behind is hard to say – some are treating it as a memorial, perhaps, others enjoying looking back on her photos – but there’s something odd about users interacting with a person’s profile once they’re no longer here. This isn’t a rare phenomenon though – in fact, it’s become the way we do things. Because how else do we deal with an IRL life ending, while an online one remains?
According to Instagram’s current policy, your immediate family get to decide what happens to your account after your death – although it’s not always that simple. If your family want your account to be removed completely, they need to fill out an online form, before providing a death certificate or “proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased person, or his/her estate”. If they wish to memorialise your account (meaning it stays as it is, but no one can log in or make any changes, including to your profile pic or privacy settings), then your family need to prove that you’ve actually died, by providing “a link to an obituary or news article”.
Most people obviously don’t do the former – when you’re grieving the death of a family member, the last thing you’re going to be thinking about is sending their death certificate to Instagram. What this means, then, is that now more than ever, we’re surrounded by the ghosts of people’s online lives. They might not post Instagram stories, or photos, or read your DMs anymore, but you can look back and see what they were doing and posting, up until their death. What’s particularly unsettling about this, though, is that people’s Instagram accounts look the same in life as they do in death – minus the movement. So you can find yourself in a weird liminal space, where it's hard to discern an account belonging to someone who has actually died, or one on which they just haven’t posted in a while.
Jaz’s friend Kacey* was 21 when she died by suicide last year. The two had been close at school, but as is often the case, had drifted apart and mainly kept in touch via Instagram DMs. When she died, the family remained private about some of the details (“as they have every right to,” Jaz tells me over the phone). So Jaz would sometimes look through her account, scrutinising the images for answers when she was feeling sad and confused – while also weirdly feeling like Kacey hadn’t really gone. After all, Instagram was how they communicated, and her profile didn't look any different. “Initially, I didn’t really believe it,” she says. “And then I began overthinking it. You start thinking something might pop up soon, which is absolutely terrifying.”
Jaz still grapples with the fact Kacey's account remains as it was, but tries not to look at it too much these days. “I think ‘social media grief’ is playing a really weird role in death at this point in time,” she mulls over. “It’s really hard to know what’s real and what’s not. It definitely changed my perspective on how we deal with death online.” She continues: “It really adds a whole new layer of questioning things… that’s how I feel looking at Kacey’s Instagram page. I feel upset, and sad, and bad that I wasn’t there. And I wonder what was going on in the last few years of her life which would make her do something like that.”
Sometimes though, our relationship with a person’s Instagram account after their death can feel even more acute and interactive. When Jo’s friend died a month ago, she didn’t know how to deal with the digital imprint they’d left behind. She still finds herself DMing this person on Instagram, knowing that there's no way they can reply, but still half-hoping for a ‘seen’ notification. “It’s weird, because in some ways it’s nice to be able to send a message or look back at the pictures, but I can imagine it would be a bit too much for some people to handle. Or maybe it’s not healthy to deal with it in that way,” she tells me. “I’ve probably only done it when I’ve been drunk – so to wake up sober and realise you’ve done that is a weird feeling. I guess there was no way to do that before [social media], unless you were going to hold a seance.”
Jo touches upon an interesting point. In some ways, how we deal with death in this social media-driven era isn’t that different to how humans always have. Now, though, our memorials are digital, and largely crafted by the person who has left us behind – however unintentionally. “I guess praying or visiting a gravestone to talk to them… things like that are similar, in a way. And that’s always happened, hasn’t it?” Jo points out. “I have a friend who passed away a couple of years ago, and I see his sister post to him online quite a lot, and if she’s seen something she thinks he’ll like, she’ll post to him. Maybe it’s good for her to deal with it in that way.”
But what about those who interact with the accounts of dead people they don’t know personally? Why did Ekaterina Karaglanova, for instance, gain so many more followers after her death? She’s not the only one. When Bianca Devins, a 17-year-old influencer from New York, was found dead in July this year – someone she met on Instagram is currently being investigated for murder, according to police – she had around 70,000 followers. Now she has well over double that, and her comment sections are filled with people writing “Rest in Peace” and leaving broken heart emojis. Some have even written poems to Devins, and many of her followers interact with each other on her page.
“I guess because the circumstances surrounding her death were so horrific, I found myself going on her account, looking at her photos and thinking ‘how can someone be posting one moment, then they're gone the next?’” Charley* tells me over FaceTime. She followed Bianca Devins after reading an article about what had happened, and sometimes scrolls through the comments to see what others are saying. “I wouldn’t call it ‘morbid curiosity’ exactly. But there is an existential element to it, which Instagram has kind of amplified – more so than Facebook even, because it’s just photos. Death is the most normal thing in the world, but it’s also really strange, and social media means you experience that strangeness in real time.”
For some people, though, this extends outside the realm of one story involving one person. Charlotte tells me that she has long been fascinated with the social media imprints left behind by people she doesn’t personally know. Sometimes she’ll look at the Instagram accounts of celebrities who have died, but often it’s just distant acquaintances. “As social media has gotten bigger, you have more access to information. So if a friend of a friend of a friend said, ‘so and so’s died… RIP’ I would just go and look at their Instagram, and at their life,” she tells me over the phone.
Why does she find it so interesting? “I don’t know!” she says. “I suppose it’s the fact that they’ve gone, and there’s this whole trail behind them; a footprint. I’ve always been really morbid. I had a lot of friends who died when I was younger – including my boyfriend – so it was common for us to go to young people’s funerals. There was nothing tangible to look at [back then]. So it was always really frustrating to me… the fact I couldn’t go back and look.”
We may have gotten used to living our lives online, but the complexities and difficulties surrounding social media and death still feel muddy. And while Facebook and Snapchat have their own problems (the former's ‘memory’ feature has been criticised for the way it can bring back painful reminders, while the latter's instantaneous nature means death has been known to occur in real time), Instagram makes grief play out in a particularly unusual way. Because not only is it so personal and photo based, it's also public-facing. What's posted remains there until it's deleted.
“I think there should be some sort of education at school or certain guidelines on how to deal with death in a social media driven-world. Like, what is the healthiest thing to do?” says Jaz. Jo agrees, suggesting that platforms like Instagram could implement certain features that mean a person’s old posts don't suddenly pop up on your feed unexpectedly. “I definitely think there needs to be more awareness when it comes to social media and death,” she says.
Until then though, our digital lives will continue to run alongside our IRL ones, though not in exact parallel – and that extends to how our deaths play out in the world. Perhaps in the future certain measures will ensure social media and grief become a more seamless and natural process, or the culture around it might become more normalised. But also, death is messy and painful and a hugely personal process to understand anyway. It makes sense that all of this would bleed into the digital realm as well.
*Some names have been changed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.