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The Ends of Identity

EndsUnderstanding 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—have 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 after 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.

NB: From 2020 this page is no longer bering updated as the project has matured, the two ‘ends’ have split off in to separate research projects (which still include the underlying questions about what happens when agency is limited or absent on social media). You can read more about my research on The Digital Child or Digital Death.

I was recently interviewed about Life and Death on Social Media as part of the Curtin University ‘The Future Of’ podcast series, which you can listen to here:

A few years ago I gave a public talk explaining my approach to the Ends of Identity for Curtin Alumni in which you can view below:

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.

Research and discussion to date has resulted in the following outputs:


Leaver, T. (2019). Posthumous Performance and Digital Resurrection: From Science Fiction to Startups. In T. Kohn, M. Gibbs, B. Nansen, & L. van Ryn (Eds.), Residues of Death: Disposal Refigured (pp. 69–79). London & New York: Routledge.
[Open Access Pre-print: https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/2gkw9]

Leaver, T. (2018) Co-creating Birth and Death on Social Media In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.) A Networked Self and Birth, Life, Death. (pp. 35-49). New York: Routledge. https://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9781315202129-3
[Open Access Pre-print: https://mediarxiv.org/s6ev4/]

Leaver, T., & Highfield, T. (2018). Visualising the ends of identity: pre-birth and post-death on Instagram. Information, Communication & Society, 21(1), 30–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2016.1259343

Leaver, T., (2017). Intimate Surveillance: Normalizing Parental Monitoring & Mediation of Infants Online. Social Media + Society, 3(2). http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2056305117707192

Leaver, T. and Nansen, B. (2017) ‘Infancy Online’ special issue of Social Media + Society, 3,2, June 2017, http://journals.sagepub.com/page/sms/collections/special-issues/infancy-online.

Leaver, T. (2016, November 24). Facebook’s accidental “death” of users reminds us to plan for digital death. The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/facebooks-accidental-death-of-users-reminds-us-to-plan-for-digital-death-68745

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

Leaver, T. (2015). Researching the Ends of Identity: Birth and Death on Social Media. Social Media + Society, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115578877

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


Abidin C. & Leaver, T. (13 September 2017), From YouTube to TV and Back Again: Viral video child stars and media flows in the era of social media , Digitising Early Childhood Conference, Perth, Australia, https://www.slideshare.net/Tama/from-youtube-to-tv-and-back-again-viral-video-child-stars-and-media-flows-in-the-era-of-social-media

Leaver, T. (12 September 2017), Turning Babies into Big Data–And How to Stop it [Invited Keynote], Digitising Early Childhood Conference, Perth, Australia, https://www.slideshare.net/Tama/turning-babies-into-big-data-and-how-to-stop-it

Leaver, T. (2017, September 1) ‘Artificial Intelligence and the Algorithmic Afterlife’ in the Human Relationships in the Time of Artificial Intelligence panel, Directions and Destinations, Curtin University, 1 September 2017.

Leaver, T. (2017, April 19)  The Will to App: digitising public health, Public Panel, UNSW Media Research Network, Sydney, 4pm, 19 April 2017. [Invited speaker.]

Leaver, T. (2017, April 19) Solving Parenthood? Apps, Infant Wearables & Digital Solutionism, The Will to App Symposium, UNSW Sydney. [Invited paper.]

Leaver, T. (2017, April 7). Saving the Dead: Digital Legacy Planning and Posthumous Profiles, John Curtin Institute for Public Policy, Curtin Corner, Perth,  http://www.slideshare.net/Tama/saving-the-dead-digital-legacy-planning-posthumous-profiles

Leaver, T. Intimate Surveillance: Normalizing Cultures of Monitoring from Conception to Infancy, Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference, Sydney, Australia, 15 December 2016, http://www.slideshare.net/Tama/intimate-surveillance-normalizing-cultures-of-monitoring-from-conception-to-infancy

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).

Highfield, T. & Leaver, T. ‘A Methodology for Mapping Instagram Hashtags’, presented at Digital Humanities Australia 2014, University of Western Australia, 20 March 2014, http://slidesha.re/1iJlgnd

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. ‘Who Do You Think You Are 2.0?,’ CCI Symposium, Perth, Western Australia, 12 November 2012, http://slidesha.re/PNRnWk

Leaver, T. ‘The Ends of Online Identity’, Internet Research 12, Seattle, 10-13 October 2011. http://slidesha.re/1D4Mr7t


Leaver, T interviewed in Kim Cousins, From YouTube to TV and Back Again, Particle, 19 September 2017, https://particle.scitech.org.au/people/from-youtube-to-tv-and-back-again/

Leaver, T interviewed in Leon Compton, Protecting Online Identities of Children, Statewide Mornings, ABC Hobart, 13 September 2017, 9.52am, http://www.abc.net.au/radio/hobart/programs/mornings/social-media-and-parenting/8940830 [Radio]

Leaver, T interviewed by Fiona Parker, Digitising Early Childhood, Breakfast, ABC Central Victoria, 13 September 2017, 9.34am [Radio]

Leaver, T interviewed in Rebecca Turner, Owlet Smark Sock prompts warning for parents, fears over babies’ sensitive health data, ABC News, 12 September 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-12/owlet-smart-sock-prompts-warning-for-parents-privacy-concerns/8893104

Leaver, T interviewed in Brigid O’Connell, Kids in data danger: parents ‘oversharenting’, Herald Sun, Melbourne, 12 September 2017, p. 11.

Leaver, T interviewed in ‘Experts have warned parents that a new high-tech baby monitor will not reduce the risk of their baby dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS’ ABC Radio Perth; ABC Radio Hobart; ABC Radio Adelaide; 12 September 2017. [Radio]

Leaver, T interviewed in Brigid O’Connell, Parents may be unwittingly turning babies into big data, Herald Sun, 11 September 2017, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/parents-may-be-unwittingly-turning-babies-into-big-data/news-story/c8b6693d390fa95a27162a88f17d71ef

Leaver, T interviewed in Brett Worthington, ‘How social media videos turn children into viral sensations’, Life Matters, Radio National, 11 September 2017, 9.40am, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/viral-kids-youtube-instagram-micro-celebrities/8886520

Leaver, T interviewed in Emily Ritchie, ‘A new career that comes out of a (You)Tube’, The Australian, 9 September 2017, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/media/digital/a-new-career-that-comes-out-of-a-youtube/news-story/da5bab2efcddc14f572cf005ccdc5e19

Leaver, T interviewed in Cathy O’Leary, ‘Parents air kids’ lives on social media’. The Weekend West, 9 September 2017, p. 23. [PDF] https://thewest.com.au/news/wa/parents-airing-kids-lives-on-social-media-ng-b88591452z

Leaver, T interviewed in Emily Ritchie, ‘Click Here for Fame: How the YouTube Generation Transformed the Face of Arts and Culture’, The Weekend Australian, Review Magazine, 9 September 2017, pp. [PDF] https://t.co/LD4qiRyz1N

Leaver, T. interviewed in Syan Dougherty, Sharenting, Today Tonight Perth, Channel 7, 6.30pm, 31 January 2017. https://youtu.be/DZ9RGYN031E

Leaver, T interviewed by Rebecca De Unamuno, Dealing with Digital Death, ABC 702 Sydney, Evenings, 6 December 2016, 8.45pm. [Radio]

Leaver, T interviewed by Kier Shorey, Managing Social Media After Death, ABC Far North Queensland, Breakfast, 9.15am, 2 December 2016. [Radio]

Leaver, T interviewed by James Valentine, Memorials on Social Media,  702 Sydney, Afternoons, 24 November 2016, 3.15pm [Mp3] [Radio]

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 by Tim Bennett ‘New service allows users to tweet after death’, The Wire, 2SER Sydney, 6.20pm, 4 March 2013. [Radio] [Mp3]

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]

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