Social Media, Death and the Virtual Afterlife

She didn’t really like social media. The only reason Janice joined Facebook was because she got sick, and writing was too hard for her.

One of the things I remember best about my friend Janice was her handwriting. No one had a more elegant cursive hand, with letters that flowed and looped and swirled like they were made by a master calligrapher.

I remember her handwriting so well because Janice sent cards in the mail. She never missed a holiday or a birthday — and what she wrote was warm, and personal and heartfelt. In many ways, Janice was a throwback to an earlier time — an age when people put thought into their words and effort into the writing of them.

She didn’t really like social media. The only reason Janice joined Facebook was because she got sick, and writing was too hard for her. In 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Less than six months, and my friend was dead.

But today, eight years after her death, her Facebook profile remains alive.

Her story is not that unusual.

The Data of the Deceased

The last time anyone did a count — back in 2012 — there were approximately 30 million Facebook accounts connected to people who have died. By now that number is surely much larger.

In many cases, where the person’s death is quick, accidental and unexpected, there is no time to prepare. Those accounts live on, like an insect frozen in amber, filled with pictures and messages and notes to and from the deceased.

In those cases, in particular, closing the account or saving the personal data of the deceased can be tricky. A close family member could contact Facebook in an effort to retrieve the information if the password isn’t known or saved on a device. The release of posthumous information is a legal grey area. Facebook believes the terms of service for users that are designed to protect privacy also prevent the company from releasing such information. Others cite state, provincial or national laws that they believe override those terms. The result is that court challenges to attempt to force Facebook to open accounts to loved ones can be lengthy and frustrating.

In other cases, where the user is diagnosed with a terminal illness and has time to prepare, the person’s family and friends may have permission to post about the person’s death and maintain a Facebook account as a kind of virtual memorial. A close relative can send an obituary to the company and have the page “memorialized” as a kind of permanent virtual cemetery plot where, instead of placing flowers, family and friends can continue to post comments and pictures.

Several companies have formed to help family members tackle the tricky terrain of the social media afterlife. One helpful site, thedigitalbeyond.com, has links to dozens of services that help with digital legacy management.

People deal with death differently for deep cultural, religious or individual reasons, so it makes sense that in a relatively new technological setting like Facebook or Twitter, the norms and customs around death are still being formed. For some, the deceased person’s continuing social media presence can be comforting. For others, it can be creepy.

Speaking from my own experience — soon after Janice passed away, I “unfriended” her on Facebook. While that didn’t exactly feel right to me — after all, it wasn’t like we’d had a falling out or lost touch somehow — it didn’t feel right to continue to see her name come up in my social media feed, either.

Plan Ahead

Evan Carroll, the founder of “The Digital Beyond,” has just one piece of advice for social media users: plan ahead. Unfortunately, few people seem inclined to do so.

A 2013 study of users in Great Britain revealed that only 20 percent of social media users had even considered what would happen to their accounts once they pass away. Of these, only a fraction had taken the necessary steps to ensure that their wishes were followed.

Further complicating the issue is that the after-death policies for each platform — LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook — vary from company to company. In the case of Facebook in particular — which claims ownership over user content — there’s very little stopping the company from simply deactivating dormant accounts if they choose, putting precious photos, videos, notes and other data at risk of deletion.

So what can you do to protect your digital legacy and make sure your wishes for your online data are respected after you die? If you don’t want to use an online service like AfterSteps, Legacy Locker or SecureSafe — each of which can guide you through the process of digital estate planning — there are a number of steps you can take on your own.

Digital Estate

First, make a list of all the accounts and places you might have important data stored. This includes not only your social media accounts, but also the iCloud storage that comes with Apple devices, online storage providers like Amazon, Flickr or Dropbox and any hard drive files you might have. The list of digital assets should also include your email accounts, banking and any stocks that you might trade online as well.

Second, explore the terms of service for each company that you deal with. Make sure you’ve clearly understood the terms and conditions that you’ve agreed to when you signed up for the service.

Third, you will need to designate a person to take care of your assets for you — a kind of electronic executor. This should be a person close to you who who is trustworthy and tech-savvy.

Since it’s illegal for anyone other than you to access your information, you’ll need to inform them that you’ve chosen them to perform this duty for you, then create a signed letter authorizing them to act on your behalf after you’ve passed away. The online executor should be referenced in your will, but the assets don’t need to be named. You may need a separate letter for each digital asset, given the range of terms of services for each company — though with the help of an estate lawyer, you should be able to create one that will work for most of your online services.

Fourth, you will need to be clear with the electronic executor what your wishes are for your data. This should be put into writing as well.

Fifth, create a document including all the login information, security question answers and passwords for each account. This should be printed and stored securely in a place that your executor knows.

Sixth — and most importantly — update all this information often. Account passwords change. New accounts can be added. Services can be changed. Experts advise that you should review all your information once a month to make sure it’s up to date.

The final thing you might consider is drafting an email or message to be posted after you die. While that may strike some as morbid, posthumous letters to loved ones have been around since well before the Web — and may bring comfort and closure to those you leave behind.

If you’re on the fence about preparing a statement, take a look at your last Facebook post. In the event of your sudden death, those would be your last words to your friends on social media.

It’s worth thinking about.

  • Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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