Understanding what identity means, how it’s conveyed, and how this is different, in online settings has been an important area of study since long before the web, but as social media and online communication—and especially mobile communication–become ubiquitous, questions of identity online remain important. Most existing projects and approaches aimed at understanding identity online focus understandably on active identity, or those moments where someone is actively controlling, or seeking to control, who they are and how they are presented, represented or performed online. However, the looking at the Ends of Identity online, at those moments before agency is possible (ie before birth, at birth, and in the early years of life) and when agency ends (usually at death) can reveal important insights into how we understand identity, and the limitations of current models of mapping identity online.
At one end, this means examining how parents and others set the initial parameters for someone’s identity online. Consider, for example, how parents share everything from ultrasounds pictures to the hundreds of baby photos on social networks like Facebook. This, in effect, initialises the online identity for someone, and the longevity of these traces will have a significant impact for many young people in years to come. At the other end, when someone dies, often there is now a vast array of online information left behind, held in email accounts, social networks or sharing services like Flickr (for photographs) or YouTube (for videos). What happens to this information? How do processes like memorialisation or mourning operate online? Can digital assets be passed on? What roles and responsibilities should social networking services take regarding deceased account holders (and what’s currently going on)? And all importantly: looking at both ends can reveal important results in terms of the way our current ideas about identity online are formed, framed and the limits to these models.
This research area is my main focus at present. In collaborative work with Dr Tim Highfield, I’ve become especially interested in the ends of identity in visual social media. Tim and I have worked together to develop a method for mapping images on Instagram in particular, and are currently analysing datasets relating to pre-birth (in particular, #ultrasound and #birth) and death (in particular, #funeral and #RIP). Work in this area is ongoing, but early findings can be found in several of our recent presentations (listed below). In 2017 we plan to present further findings, as well as write up several papers from this research, and investigate further some of the nuances already found in our preliminary research.
I’m also collaborating with Dr Bjorn Nansen in this area; we are currently editing a special issue of Social Media + Society on “Infancy Online”.
Research and discussion to date has resulted in the following outputs:
Leaver, T., & Highfield, T. (2016). Visualising the ends of identity: pre-birth and post-death on Instagram. Information, Communication & Society, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2016.1259343
Leaver, T. (2015). Born Digital? Presence, Privacy, and Intimate Surveillance. In Hartley, J & W. Qu (Eds.), Re-Orientation: Translingual Transcultural Transmedia. Studies in narrative, language, identity, and knowledge (pp. 149–160). Shanghai: Fudan University Press
Nansen, B. and Leaver, T. (Eds.). (2015) Beginnings issue of M/C Journal, 18, 5, October 2015, http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/issue/view/beginnings (Edited special issue; Editorial.)
Highfield, T., & Leaver, T. (2015). A methodology for mapping Instagram hashtags. First Monday, 20 (1). doi:10.5210/fm.v20i1.5563. Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5563/4195
Leaver, T. (2013). The Social Media Contradiction: Data Mining and Digital Death. M/C Journal, 16(2). Retrieved from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/625
Leaver, T. ‘A Death on Facebook? Social Media and Posthumous Profiles’, Coping with Death and Grief Through Technology Panel, Internet Research 14, Selected Papers of Internet Research 14.0, Denver, CO, USA, 24 October 2013, http://spir.aoir.org/index.php/spir/article/view/889/464
Leaver, T. Normalizing Intimate Surveillance: Parental Monitoring and Mediation of Infants Online, Controlling Data: Someone Think of the Children Symposium, 24 October 2016, Perth, Western Australia, http://www.slideshare.net/Tama/intimate-surveillance-normalizing-parental-monitoring-and-mediation-of-infants-online [Mp3 Audio Recording]
Leaver, T. and Highfield, F. (2015) Instagramming The Ends of Identity: Pre-birth and post-death identity practices mapped via the #ultrasound and #funeral hashtags, 12th ICA Mobile Pre-Conference, From Womb to Tomb: Mobile Research Across Genders, Generations, Ethnicities, Cultures, and Life Stages, San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 20-21, 2015 http://www.slideshare.net/campoalto/instagrammingthe-ends-of-identity-prebirth-and-postdeath-identity-practices-mapped-via-theultrasound-and-funeral-hashtags
Leaver, T. ‘Captured at Birth? Presence, Privacy and Intimate Surveillance’ IR15: Boundaries and Intersections, Association of Internet Researchers Conference, Daegu, South Korea, 23 October 2014, http://slidesha.re/1HqNFcY
Leaver, T. and Highfield, T. ‘Mapping the Ends of Identity on Instagram’, presented at the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) Annual Conference, Swinburne University, Melbourne, 9 July 2014, http://slidesha.re/1oyDVl7
Leaver, T. ‘Born Digital? Birth and Social Media’, Culture +8: New times, New Zones, Margaret River, Western Australia, 5 June 2014 (invited presentation).
Leaver, T. ‘Saving the dead? Posthumous profiles and social media’, Internet Histories/Internet Futures Symposium, University of Sydney, 12 February 2014 (invited presentation).
Leaver, T. ‘Captured at Birth? Intimate Surveillance and Digital Legacies’, presented at Surveillance, Copyright, Privacy: The end of the open internet Conference, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 1 Feburary 2014, http://slidesha.re/1jVSnnl
Leaver, T. ‘Co-creating Life and Death on Social Media?’, Resisting the (Facebook) Interface – Internet Research 14 Preconference, Denver, USA, 23 October 2013.http://slidesha.re/18Ua5nk
Leaver, T. ‘Birth, Death and Facebook’, ACAT: Adventures in Culture and Technology Seminar Series, Curtin University, 25 September 2013, http://slidesha.re/GAX474
Leaver, T interviewed by Lyrella Cochrane, Facebook Memorials, Arvos, ABC Darwin 105.7, 18 October 2016, 3.40pm. [Mp3] [Radio]
Leaver, T. interviewed in Cat Rodie, “I’m not ready to go yet” – Death in the time of Facebook, Australian Women’s Weekly, 31 March 2016, http://www.aww.com.au/latest-news/im-not-ready-to-go-yet-death-in-the-time-of-facebook-26284
Leaver, T. interviewed in Emma Wynne, What happens to your social media accounts when you die?, ABC News, 29 March 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-29/what-happens-to-your-social-media-accounts-when-you-die/7281832
Leaver, T. interviewed by James Lush, What happens to your social media profile when you die?, Breakfast, ABC 720 Perth, 24 March 2016, 6.48am [Radio] [Mp3]
Leaver, T. interviewed in Emily Blatchford, Multiple Generations On Social Media Are Major Source Of User Frustration, Huffington Post Australia, 24 February 2016,
Leaver, T. interviewed in Emily Blatchford, Why Posting Pictures Of Kids On Social Media Doesn’t Float Every Parent’s Boat, Huffington Post Australia, 8 February 2016,
Leaver, T. interviewed by Barry Nicholls, Death on Facebook, Drive, ABC North West WA, 4.20pm, 18 September 2015 [Radio] [Mp3]
Leaver, T. interviewed by Matthew Karstunen, ‘A Virtual You Upon Passing and the Implications’, The Daily, 2SER Sydney, 6 November 2014, [Radio]
Leaver, T. interviewed in Cassie McCullagh and Jason Di Rosso, ‘Online Life (and Death) and the Culture of Thrones’, The List, Radio National, 29 March 2013, [Radio]
Leaver, T. interviewed in Rick Morton, ‘Facebook from beyond the grave’, The Australian, 25 February 2013, p. 11.
Leaver, T. interviewed in Kristin Shorten, ‘Foetusbook the new Facebook for parents’, News.Com.AU, 30 January 2013,
Leaver, T. interviewed for Debra Jopson, ‘Digital never dies – but it may be out of reach when we do’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2012, p 1.
Leaver, T. invited presentation: ‘How Will Young People Deal With 5000 Baby Photos on Facebook?’, Media 140: Digital Family, Perth, 28 April 2012. [Slides]