19 Apr 2022
People use photo printing service Shutterfly to memorialize their loved ones. Today, artist and writer Renée Reizman reflects on her dearly departed pet Maude, the blurry line between personal and professional social media, and how content creation often goes against our wishes.
The Worker’s Perspective
Shutterfly shows me photos of my dead dog at least once a year.
As an artist and writer, posting photos to my social media accounts, especially of my dogs, past and present, has become an integral part in shaping my reputation and earning money. Being a #DogPerson has become part of my personal brand, enabling me to write cultural criticism about dog movies and television shows for pay. And Maude helped make this happen.
Maude was the first dog I adopted as an adult. Before I came around, the five-year-old Chow Chow mix had experienced unnamed trauma that made her wary of most people. Though she snapped at strangers and bared her teeth at other dogs, when we met, she gently licked my hand and let me run my fingers through her beautiful red-orange coat. I adopted her that week.
In the three years I had with Maude, she went from an anxiety-ridden, paranoid mess to a calm, semi-social café companion. She let me give her belly rubs and slept at the foot of my bed. I took her on road trips and long hikes off-leash. We eventually made a couple dog friends in the neighborhood, and she even let children pet her sometimes. I was devastated when she was diagnosed with cancer. At 8, she was still considered young. It was aggressive, and grew back almost immediately after I got her tumors removed.
The photos came about when we were running out of time. I asked a friend, a professional photographer, if she would take pictures of us. We spent a day in the park, dangling treats just out of frame, getting Maude to shine her sparkling eyes at the camera while I threw my arms around my aloof floof. I joked that we were taking engagement photos.
A month later, Maude died. A respiratory infection took her faster than cancer. I returned from work and discovered her stiff body blocking the door. She had been waiting for me to come home.
These events happened to strike during a grocery store Monopoly game promotion. I had collected a bunch of coupons for Shutterfly, the print-on-demand photo service, and decided to print out some of the photos I took with Maude as a memento. I got a 20 page, 5x7 photo book and two magnets. I placed the book on a shelf next to her ashes. Whenever I wanted to remember Maude, I could flip through this book and relive our best moments.
And now, once a year, Shutterfly cheerily reminds me to reorder photos of my dead dog.
When this happened, I tried to pitch a story about how Shutterfly helped me grieve. Nothing ever came from it — perhaps I was too distressed to make a coherent argument? — but I’m glad I never wound up writing a story that celebrated Shutterfly’s role in helping me move on, because, over time, the photo service actually ended up reopening old wounds. Shutterfly’s reminders of Maude’s life, over time, have become unwanted, unplanned reminders of trauma.
Losing Maude was difficult and I wanted to control my ability to recall her as much as I could. In real life, this was pretty easy to manage. I boxed up her possessions and hid them in the back of my closet, and I stopped scrolling through my phone’s old photos.
I didn’t have much control over Maude’s digital footprint, especially since she had been uploaded to every social media platform I used to attract engagement for my career. I still used Facebook to promote new articles and art programming, and without warning, the timeline would regularly show me memories of our adventures. I’d see Maude at a campsite near the Bristlecone Forest, Maude outside a bookstore in Marfa, Texas, or Maude riding in the back of my friend’s convertible, purple tongue out. With my mind on work instead of nostalgia, I wasn’t prepared to re-experience these memories. I’d tear up and navigate to a new tab.
Many content creators mix the personal and professional on their social media accounts because this helps them attract an audience. I try to strike a balance between the two worlds, making sure that my feed’s constant self-promotion didn’t look like spam, while posting just enough personal content to be a fun follow. Disentangling the two had always felt out of the question, because people wanted to hire people they both respected and could relate to. Even this article, for instance, was commissioned based on a tweet.
And yet, I have very limited control over the tools for my job. I was able to subdue Maude’s presence by switching off Facebook’s “On This Day” feature and avoiding Instagram’s Stories Archive. This helped, but photos always slipped through the cracks. I didn’t know how to specifically tell the companies to remove Maude from my feed. Because she didn’t have any social media accounts, I didn’t have the option to untag or block her, which I had once done to an ex boyfriend I never wanted to see again.
Rightly noticing that people do like to revisit their past, developers have created archive features that prioritize old, popular posts. These are delivered with relentless optimism, sometimes surrounded by cheerful borders, embedded in poppy music slideshows, or infused with cheerful greetings. Unfortunately, negative posts that attract a lot of attention are swept into the algorithms that choose which content to include in these moments, resulting in users revisiting bad memories against our will.
Part of the issue is a simple, flawed assumption on the part of engineers, content moderators, and others behind platforms. They operate on the assumption that every user has a positive association with what they post online. They write and fine-tune algorithms that respond to engagement, without taking sentiment or emotions into account. Life ends, relationships sour, and homes burn down, and announcing these events draws in many comments and reactions. Developers know that people mourn, but still struggle to create algorithms with necessary context after someone dies.
I don’t want all of my personal life to become material or content for platform engagement, especially not against my wishes. And grief is a personal journey that I try to follow on my own terms. At the very least, if I select Shutterfly products that are tagged “sympathy” or “memorial,” I ought to automatically opt-out of the reminder emails I get to reorder magnets of my dead dog.
It’s been four years since Maude passed away. My Shutterfly photo book is still prominently displayed on my bookshelf, and a few times a year, I pull it down to reminisce. I do this when nostalgia compels me, and I tear up every time.
Three years ago, I got a new dog named Flora, another Chow Chow. She has completely different quirks that make our bond special. We have a photoshoot planned in a few weeks, not because she’s dying, but because she is full of life – and because I won a contest on Instagram. Their algorithm knows that, once again, I’m a pet owner, and I want to create special memories of my dog. I wonder if the only way to opt out of reminders is to just delete my social media entirely. I want to document Flora’s chaos and share it with the world. I just want to be in control of when that happens.
This piece is also dedicated to my beautiful canines of the past and present, Maude and Flora Dog. Many thanks to Danny, Tamara, and the rest of the TWC team for pushing my cynical humor into thoughtful analysis.