Prof Lib Taylor on Social Media in USER NOT FOUND

What happens to email messages, text messages, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts once you are no longer here?

User Not Found not only asks us to think about what happens to our online identities when we die, but it also makes us think about how our social media legacies live on and have an impact on the lives of those left behind. In the forward to the upcoming publication of the script for User Not Found, written by Chris Goode, Lib Taylor discusses Dante or Die’s work and considers User Not Found in light of the more recent emergence of social media in immersive theatre. Here’s a snippet from this forward:

“In theatre, since the turn of the millennium, many practitioners have explored ways of creating phenomenological experiences mediated by sophisticated technological and digital devices. However, one of the consistent critiques of these practices is that audience engagement has been developed through spectacularising the technologies, which can arguably distance audiences rather than draw them in. The technologies become foregrounded, rather than integrated. Dante Or Die are concerned with finding ways to enhance somatic participation by deploying more intimate and accessible technologies, functional in unremarkable places. With User Not Found, they use the ubiquitous technologies that have become kinds of bodily prosthetic. By using devices with which the audience are familiar they aim to connect spectators, in a more direct and intimate way, to the theatre event. The company’s enduring interest in emotionally-charged, personal stories told in ordinary spaces is enhanced by the deployment of the familiar technologies of the everyday. Dante or Die have created a performance which not only addresses the issue of virtual afterlife, but by deploying hand held digital devices they also explore how theatre and social media can share aesthetic and narrative forms.”

The Song of Social Media

In ‘Smartphones are Hot’, Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows) makes some interesting comments about the functions and impact of the smartphone. When describing the multiple capabilities of a smartphone, he describes it as ‘Whitmanesque’, perhaps thinking of section 51 of Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’ Carr goes on to describe our engagement with smartphones: ‘To look into the screen of a smartphone is to be lost to the world. Like every hot medium, the smartphone isolates and fragments the self. It individualizes, alienates […] At the very least, one could say that the smartphone creates an environment that encourages participation at a distance: participation as performance.’ It is this final sentence that makes Carr’s argument intriguing yet, in 2018 (four years after Carr’s blog was posted), somewhat conflicting. Whilst our phones certainly prompt agency, this engagement is becoming increasingly involved and intimate. It is true that our participation is performative, but this is precisely what makes it involved, sensory, and almost tangible. As our phones connect us to the world around us, our performance as online ‘characters’ (that we carefully cultivate via social media sights such as Facebook and Instagram) is an immersive, rather than distant, experience. Due to the plethora of social media networks, we exist as multiple selves and interact with many different social groups and relations from family members and close friends to one-time acquaintances and employers. Thus as we share our likes, thoughts, purchases, family albums, and job promotions with those near and far, we are truly immersed in our online worlds. Mark Zuckerberg alluded to the possibility of a fully immersive digital world when he said: ‘One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. The world would be the ultimate communication technology.’ The price to pay, however, for this in-tuneness between our daily lives and online presence, is our privacy. Today, the screen is no longer a shield to hide behind, but a window through which we are perceived and perceive others. As a result, the primary function of the world wide web – to openly connect and make information available – is the very thing that can unsettle and deter its users. In a Supreme Court statement from 1963, Chief Justice Earl Warren warned: ‘The fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a great danger to the privacy of the individual.’ As Facebook notifies us of our friends and Google’s predictive search tells us what we’re thinking, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that our virtual existence is superseding our physical one. As our smartphones have become part of our survival kit, for nobody leaves the house without the sacred trinity of ‘purse, keys, phone’, their status has risen from accessory to necessity. We depend on them for comfort, connection and direction to such an extent that they are remoulding the shape of our hand. Perhaps it is time for a Song of Ourselves for a social media age:

            I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


For Carr’s article ‘Smartphones are Hot’ see:

User Not Found: The performance

When each click we make online is tracked, recorded and used by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, social media has never seemed so influential or controversial. With 270 million fake Facebook profiles, it is hardly surprising to hear that a new social media user joins the jamboree every 15 seconds. Facebook and Whatsapp alone handle 60 billion messages per day. As a result, social media is a dominant, powerful element of society that, like the technological ether we breathe, is omnipresent yet ungraspable. It shapes not only the way in which we present ourselves and conduct our relationships, but it even informs the decisions we make. The predominance of social media technology, therefore, makes it difficult to conceive of contemporary performance without its presence either as a tool used in the performance, or by advertisers, audience members, or critics in the days before and after the live event. As Michael Billington puts it: ‘For theatre to turn its back on new technology would be as if it had rejected electrically controlled lighting when it came into play in the 1880s’.

User Not Found: Social Media Technologies in Immersive Performance is a research project based at the University of Reading that asks how social media is reshaping our experience of loss and bereavement. Dante or Die (theatre company) and Marmelo Digital (technology company) are developing a performance and app to explore these themes. For the performance – which will be showing at London’s Roundhouse, Ipswich’s PULSE festival, Derby theatre, the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, and Reading’s South Street Arts Centre – each audience member will be given a set of headphones and a phone through which they will accompany a person’s grieving process. The character first finds out about the death of his ex-partner via online messaging, making us reconsider social media’s role in relation to human compassion, the meaning of community, our experience of alienation, and the way in which our memories surface.

With the National Theatre of Wales’ live-streamed production of Tim Price’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (2012); the RSC’s collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios to create an avatar-Ariel for their 2016 production of The Tempest; and Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi’s skyped performance in Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 68* Years (2016) at London’s Arcola Theatre; technology is making its mark on the world’s stage more than ever. User Not Found takes on the world of social media to make us think about ideas concerning immersivity in both performance and online spaces, ultimately urging us to ask how we experience loss in the twenty-tens.

For further updates follow us on Twitter: UserNotFound_18

Julia Samuel on #WhenDeathIsShared

Julia Samuel, ‘#WhenDeathIsShared’ in Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving (London: Penguin, 2017)

‘Unbeknownst to their physicians, many patients prefer to “face the reaper” head-on via social media. In England, a thirty-year-old man, who worked in retail, developed a headache and difficulty walking. An MRI revealed an aggressive brain tumor. The tumor progressed despite treatment, and he lost the function of the entire right side of his body as well as the ability to speak. Bound to his hospital bed and left with only a few other avenues to communicate, he took to an iPad to blog about his experience. Distressed to be leaving behind a one-year-old son, he hoped that his son would get to know him better through this blog.’ (271)

‘Social media’s role extends past one’s last living moment. A few days after I found out that a friend of mine from school had died in a swimming accident, I was surprised to see a post from his Facebook account pop up in my newsfeed. It was a picture of him with his family, and it seemed that his sister was now posting on his behalf. Strange as it seemed, the sister, hurting with loss, would post from his account about how she saw him alive in her dreams, how she still imagined the whole thing being conjured up in her imagination. Reading these posts from my departed friend’s account would put my stomach in a lurch, juxtaposed as they were with cat videos and vacation pictures. Eventually, they made me so uncomfortable that I decided to block the posts from my newsfeed.’ (272)

‘Whatever one’s opinion of the impact digital connectivity has had on our social lives, the benefits that can potentially be derived by people facing the end of life are undeniable. More than many of the advanced medical treatments that we have developed, it is the internet that gives me hope that we might be able to ease some of the existential suffering people experience when they face their mortal end.’ (273)

‘Death, the great enemy, is now seeing many facing off with it using unusual means and on very public forums. Death cafes and death salons, where people converse about death over drinks and food, have started opening up. People like George Carlin jabbed with death jokes, once unthinkable. College courses about death are becoming increasingly popular. One can even buy a watch called a Tikker, that provides wearers a reminder of how much estimated time they have left to live. In Japan, young people can even go and have their pictures taken inside caskets, to see which one they would prefer if and when one becomes necessary. All of this forms part of what has been called the “death positive” movement, which seeks to open up death not only to those who are actually facing it, but to a younger generation who have not yet had to come to terms with their mortality.’ (277)

‘People have always talked about conquering death, and it has been assumed that death can be conquered by somehow averting it. To me, death derives its power from the deafening silence it induces whenever it enters a discussion. We would benefit from resuscitating many of the aspects of death that we have lost. Death needs to be closer to home, preceded by lesser disability and less isolation, but there is an aspect of death that we have to do away with. The deaths we die cannot be truly modern until we bring the subject of death within the pale of conversation and start having calm, educated conversations about it in classrooms, bars, restaurants, backyards, and, of course, in the clinic.’ (278)

Workshop with death and dying industry stakeholders

User Not Found: Social Media as Immersive Performance

Call for Participation

Workshop on Thursday 1st March 2018 at Reading University 1.00 – 4.30

‘User Not Found: Social Media as Immersive Performance’ is a research project based at the University of Reading funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council. It brings together experimental theatre company Dante or Die with technology agency, Marmelo, Reading’s Film, Theatre & Television Department and the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

Dante or Die is devising a performance, User Not Found, in which the central character experiences bereavement and mourning via the digital traces of his dead partner on social media. The performance will focus on the relationship between life, death, identity and social media. It will use every day social media technology to engage audience members via an App developed by Marmelo Digital to immerse spectators in the experience of the bereaved character.

Since the topic of the performance is social media technology and death, the project is keen to draw on the expertise of those people who work in areas connected to death or dying, for example, grief counsellors, funeral directors, social media developers, lawyers, palliative care practitioners to understand how they address the issue of an internet legacy. It is hoped that the experience of those in the field of the management of death will feed into the process of devising the performance.

The workshop will be an opportunity for you to discuss and inform the performance with the theatre company to address questions around:

  • how the creation of an internet archive shapes our legacies;
  • grieving, memories and virtual identities;
  • wi-fi, the internet and death rituals;
  • commemoration via the internet.

You will be invited to a light lunch in the Film, Theatre & Television Department at the University of Reading, followed by discussion workshop and exchange of ideas. The project will pay the travel expenses of participants. Following the workshop, you will be invited to a preview performance and post-show discussion at South Street Arts Centre in Reading on 27th June 2018 before the performance goes on tour to The Roundhouse in London followed by the Edinburgh Festival and a UK tour.

If you are interested in taking part please contact: Professor Lib Taylor (Principal Investigator), Dr John Troyer (Co-Investigator) or Lucy Jeffery (Post-Doctoral Research Assistant)

Twitter: @UserNotFound_18