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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Rest in tweet: the digital epitaphs that will live on after we're gone

We cannot imagine our lives without social media but will it start to become part of our deaths too?

Avicii sent out his last tweet two days before his death last Friday / Sean Eriksson
Avicii sent out his last tweet two days before his death last Friday / Sean Eriksson

I was recently enjoying a truly stunning Thailand sunset. But rather than watch the sky turn from red to purple to black, I was taking photos, enhancing them with my Instagram filter, posting them and waiting for the thrill of endorsement and connection. If a sun sets and no one films it, did it really happen?

It is not just sunsets, of course. A generation of digital natives now spend more time online than offline. Births, new jobs, parties, holidays, pets, food and rites of passage are all viewed through our smartphone camera filter as we capture, embellish and broadcast the version of ourselves that we want the world to “like”. We don’t just use our devices: we inhabit them. We cannot remember or imagine our lives without social media.

But will social media start to become part of our deaths too?

At the end of their lives, some find poetry, wonder or humour. Long before Twitter, the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson closed with: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”. Steve Jobs left the world telling his family: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow". Groucho Marx had one last gag: “This is no way to live”. Isaac Newton was humble: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than the ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”.

Few people in history lived as prolific a life as Leonardo da Vinci, yet he signed off with: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have”. Some sang their epitaphs, from Frank Sinatra’s I Did It My Way to Edith Piaf’s Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.

But from here on, our chosen final words are increasingly likely to be communicated digitally rather than whispered to a relative. The DJ Avicii's last known words are cited as a tweet before his death in Oman last Friday celebrating his Billboard nomination. We might leave a defiant political statement like Hugo Chavez's "always onward to victory! We will live and win!" or a more poignant tweet like Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had but not preserved, except in memory. Live long And prosper.”

Of those who wrote their own digital epitaph, author Terry Pratchett tweeted: “At last, Sir Terry, we must walk together. The End.” American poet and activist Maya Angelou ended with: "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God". George Michael’s last tweet shared a Valentine’s Day playlist while David Bowie’s final act on Twitter was to follow God. Journalist Mark Colvin tweeted simply: “It's all been bloody marvellous.”

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Read more from Tom Fletcher:

For today's leaders and diplomats, you are what you tweet

There are fewer wars when you take away power from men in big castles

The pursuit of happiness is backed by science

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Not all final tweets are profound or life-affirming. Musician Amy Winehouse signed off with: "Oinka oinka oinka why you awake". American novelist Tom Clancy finished with "Oh by the way."

But perhaps the most moving tweets are from individuals who could not have known these would be their final words. As an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, politician Boris Nemtsov had long feared assassination. Before he was shot in the back on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015, he had tweeted: "If you support stopping Russia's war with Ukraine, if you support stopping Putin's aggression, come to the spring march in Maryino on 1 March". Racing driver Sean Edwards, who died in a 2013 crash, ended his final tweet with a smiley emoticon. Tornado chaser Tim Samaras tweeted “stay storm safe” moments before his car was hit by a 175kph cyclone in Oklahama.

War correspondent Maya Naser was possibly even killed in the midst of posting a series of tweets, with the following message trailing off: “Sound of the first explosion heard in Damascus, the photography team went to where the smoke emanated..." One of the most heartbreaking is Fatemah Alabed, a Syrian facing Assad’s barrel bombs in Aleppo, who found a moment amid the horror to write: "Last message – under heavy bombardments now, can't be alive anymore. When we die, keep talking for 200,000 still inside. BYE – Fatemah."

We reach back through the years to research our ancestors, to grainy black and white photographs, government registers of births and deaths or DNA tests that remind us we were all once immigrants. But our descendants will have much more to work with as they reconstruct our lives: social media posts, emails sent in passion, anger or boredom, our Google searches. The internet doesn’t forget.

We spend more time worrying about what our CV says than what people will say about us after we are gone. It is unlikely to be a list of academic grades, job promotions or Instagram posts. Were we kind, curious, brave? We are surrounded by choices. But the most important is the choice of our own epitaph.

Can Facebook help us face the final curtain? Can a person really be immortalised in 280 characters? Social media has become less civil in the era of US Prsident Donald Trump and trolls. As we consider our own sunsets, perhaps we should start writing each tweet as if it was our last.

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age