26.11.2019, by Imke van der Sanden
Does anyone truly die in the 21st Century when their digital legacy continues to exist? The internet is full of active social media accounts of deceased users. Whereas some family members find comfort in the electronic world of their deceased loved one, others can be extremely triggered by automatic birthday reminders or chatbots that post things for you long after you are gone. Thankfully, there are actions you (or a loved one) can take to ensure that you leave a proper digital legacy behind.
The Digital Afterlife
The internet is slowly becoming more and more important when dealing with grief. People feel like they can share their thoughts and feelings online as they grieve a loss. Whereas before people would mainly go to a cemetery to remember a loved one, nowadays people also visit their loved ones’ social media profiles. It provides the people that are left behind with a place where they can share memories of you with others. Keeping the social media account of a loved one ‘alive’ can be quite comforting for those left behind as proven by Kyleigh Leddy, winner of the Modern Love College Essay Contest with her beautifully-written essay ‘Years Ago, My Sister Vanished. I See Her Whenever I Want.’
But keeping around the profile of a deceased person has its share of problems as well. As mentioned above, it can be extremely triggering for family members and friends to get automatic notifications from a loved one that has passed away. On top of that we have to take into consideration that not everyone in the online world has good intentions. It is possible that internet trolls might take the opportunity to leave insulting or inflammatory comments on the deceased’s social media page. So, who guards your profiles after you are gone?
Reports say that 428 Facebook users die every hour. In the first eight years of Facebook’s existence alone, over 30 million of its users passed away. Facebook gives a deceased’s loved ones the choice to keep up the page in what is called a memorial account, or to delete the account. Facebook allows you to assign a legacy contact. A legacy contact is the person that you have assigned to look after your Facebook profile once it has been memorialized or to authorize to delete the account permanently. Memorialized accounts can be recognized by the word ‘remembering’ being shown next to the person’s name. If a memorialized account does not have a legacy contact, the account cannot be changed.
Even after you die, Facebook still honors its strict policy, namely that it is always against Facebook policy to log into someone else’s account. This means that even if you appoint a legacy contact, they will not be able to log into your account after you passed away. They will however be able to make small changes to your profile, such as posting a tribute post, accepting friend requests and deleting unwanted messages. The Guardian addresses an interesting point in one of their articles, namely that this legacy contact is only a short term solution. What happens when your legacy contact eventually passes away? And what is going to happen to all of your data, selfies, live locations and more, decades after we are gone? Another interesting point is that if no one notifies Facebook of your passing, your account will exist indefinitely, as Facebook does nothing against inactive accounts.
Like its parent company Facebook, Instagram also offers to memorialize an account. However, a big difference is that Instagram, unlike Facebook, allows anyone to memorialize an account. It is much easier than on Facebook, and only requires a link to an obituary or a news article as proof of death. Memorialized accounts on Instagram appear exactly the same as those of living users, however no changes can be made to the account’s existing posts and info. Removing a deceased person’s Instagram account is only possible if this request is coming from an immediate family member or the deceased’s lawful representative and requires proof of documentation such as a birth or death certificate.
Unlike Facebook or Instagram, Twitter does not offer any tools in order to turn a Twitter profile into a memorial page or account. Twitter’s policy even clearly states that they will not give anyone, regardless of their relationship, access to the deceased’s Twitter account. Twitter only allows two options when it comes to the account of users after they die. The first option is for a deceased user’s account to be deactivated through a removal request by someone authorized to act on behalf of the estate, or through a verified immediate family member. The only other option is to leave the account as it is. In order to prevent false and unauthorized reports, Twitter will require a copy of the ID of the person requesting for the account to be deactivated, as well as information about the deceased, including their death certificate before they deactivated the account.
Snapchat does not have a clear extensive policy regarding its deceased users. They only mention the following on their contact page: “We are so sorry for your loss. We would like to assist you in any way possible.” The platform only offers the option to delete the account by sending them the deceased’s death certificate.
Do You Want to Live Forever?
As each social media platform seems to have a different opinion on how to handle their deceased user’s profiles, so do we and our loved ones. Where one family may choose for a memorial page, the other may not be able to handle the responsibility and constant reminder that comes with maintaining such an emotional page. It is good that social media networks such as Facebook and Instagram make both of these options possible. However, this does mean that our social media profiles, if they are not deactivated by our family members after our passing, are likely to exist forever. A study by Oxford researchers rightly addresses some ethical considerations that come with this. Does this mean our social media profiles will become part of the historical record? Or is it time to appoint social media executors, so our social media accounts, like us, do not live forever?
In our Digital Immortality article we talk more about how people virtually resurrected their loved ones with the use of technology, their social media platforms and artificial intelligence.
No one likes to talk or even think about dying and what happens after we die. However it seems that if we want to make our own choices in what we want to happen to our social media profiles, it is time for us to start including our passwords in our will.
Personally I think it is a positive thing that our social media platforms give us multiple options to choose from after we pass away. However, I don’t believe that there is a ‘correct’ decision when it comes to these type of things. In my opinion, places where we remember our deceased loved ones (whether it is a funeral or a remembrance page on social media) are for the people we leave behind. This is where it becomes tricky for me, because when someone has 450 Facebook friends, this also means 450 people will possibly have different opinions, so how do you decide who gets their way?