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Gone, but still tweeting

Project keeps Twitter user's account going after death

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TORONTO -- Twitter fanatics can now rest in peace comfortably knowing they can continue to tweet from beyond the grave.

Drew Matthews, 35, an avid Twitter user from Toronto, is one Canadian who has signed up for a project that keeps a Twitter user's account going after they die.

LivesOn, being developed by British ad agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine, will set up a second Twitter account that will add "--LIVESON" to the user's current handle and study tweets, favourites, retweets and even writing style in order to eventually begin replication.

Matthews says he tweets about 10 times per day and wonders how LivesOn will be able to mimic his style.

"Sometimes tweets are just movie or song quotes and sometimes it's situational," says Matthews.

"I tend to complain about a lot of stuff, so I don't know if (my LivesOn account) will be complaining until the end of time or if it knows I've tweeted about songs and it picks out other lyrics to post."

Dave Bedwood, a LivesOn spokesman, says the accounts will begin generating tweets while the user is still alive as it continues to improve its mimicking of the user's syntax.

"Once people get over the death question, there's the fact that this will be very useful for the living," he says.

"In fact, it needs the living to work; they have to teach it, and in doing so, it becomes an online twin."

LivesOn accounts will be private and will only have one follower: the user that it's mirroring.

When the user is deceased, a family member or close friend, whom Bedwood calls an executor, can decide whether to make the account public so tweets can continue to be generated from the afterlife.

"It's all a very early beta version of the matrix," says Bedwood.

Bedwood says LivesOn is more of an artificial intelligence experiment at the moment as research and development work is being done in partnership with Queen Mary University of London before programming begins later this month.

Currently, only five people are working on the project and there are no plans to monetize it.

Company officials say that as of March 5, more than 7,000 users have signed up across the world.

LivesOn has drawn some negative attention, especially on Twitter, where some users have tweeted about how the service is unnatural and scares them.

Patrick Tomasso, a social-content strategist in Toronto, says he has left his Twitter account in the hands of a computer before, scheduling tweets for a week while he was away on vacation, and wasn't happy with the results.

"It's morbid seeing tweets from the dead; it's not you and you're not there so it just feels fake," he says.

The social-media expert predicts LivesOn will mostly appeal to a niche market and its current growth rate is a result of users jumping on the bandwagon.

But his largest concern is about how LivesOn will alter the manner in which Canadians cope with death.

"If people are trying to move on from a loved one passing away, no one will be able to so," says Tomasso. "It's doing a disservice by acting as a constant reminder that someone is gone."

Marilyn Miller, a psychologist based in Toronto who specializes in grief counselling, says LivesOn can be compared to visiting a loved one's gravesite.

"People like to keep the deceased alive in memories, go to their gravesites, talk to the grave, and so there could be mindsets open to LivesOn," she says.

Miller says the appeal of LivesOn will depend on the generation using it.

"If you're talking to my generation, they'll be appalled, but for the generation that was born with a device in their hands, there may be a different philosophy and attitude about it in the future," she says.

As for Matthews, he says he looks at it as more silly than creepy.

"You just come back from my funeral and I'm tweeting about how it's a beautiful day," he says. "My family would be saying, 'We just put this guy in a hole and here he is tweeting,' " says Matthews.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 11, 2013 B8

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