Death is never an easy subject to broach but it’s something that has, for a lot of people, reared it’s ugly head a lot lately.
We see celebrity deaths hitting the headlines every week and although people die every day, in the digital age, it’s magnified massively as we can’t help but react very publicly on social media.
This year we’ve already seen big American stars like Shirley Temple, Philip Seymour Hoffman and WWE superstar James Hellwig aka the Ultimate Warrior sadly pass away while here in the UK we’ve seen the very young social charity activist Stephen Sutton, tv star Peaches Geldof, actor Bob Hoskins and most recently the sudden death of comedic actor Rik Mayall all causing shock waves across social media at their passing. And naturally, the younger the death, the bigger the social stir.
But what if you’re not in the spotlight? What if you don’t have legions of fans willing to remind the world of your lifetime of achievements and continue your legacy? What about when one of us ‘average Joes’ suddenly, tragically passes?
I read something that left a shiver up my spine today: “as the internet age progresses it will come to a point where the inactive accounts of deceased people will outnumber those of active users.”
It’s something that I’d never really thought about as technology and social platforms are still so strongly associated with young people. This in itself makes it all the more shocking when a social profile of the deceased is left in digital limbo. It’s a strange balance of comforting and slightly eerie as we’re now able to see our deceased friends, family or associates cropping up online months and even years after they’ve passed. And as technology has progressed, we’ve seen these platforms develop into something that’s no longer just for the young ones: as a much older demographic begin to take up sites like Facebook, the problem of how to handle deceased accounts will only get more so.
So should we start preparing ourselves for the digital afterlife? Is it something we should really start to think seriously about? I mean if I *touch wood* snuffed it tomorrow, what would happen to my online accounts? Should I leave logins and passwords in my will? Who would stop my social scheduled posts or Birthday reminders from haunting my friends and family? What if some other Kirsty Clark buys up my domain name when it runs out and gets access to my email account and therefore many of my other online accounts? Would this new, less attractive, Kirsty inherit the £1.38 in my Paypal account? AND WHO WOULD DELETE MY INTERNET HISTORY?!
Okay! Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring…hopefully it’s something I won’t have to worry about just yet…but as time progresses, maybe our online legacy is something we’re going to have to draw some attention to.
So, how have online businesses had to handle such thorny issues?
Facebook has got itself out of a few scrapes when it comes to deceased account holders. One of the earlier problems it hit was the request to reconnect. Facebook’s algorithms would crawl profiles that you hadn’t visited in a while causing them to pop up with a prompt of “You haven’t connected with” said person in a while and “Why not say hello?” Of course, a site suggesting you connect with someone that you are no longer able to would naturally be distressing.
Facebook memorial pages have too been troublesome in the past and have ended up as internet troll bait. However, deleting a person’s Facebook presence would also cause issues – some people don’t want to be constantly reminded of someone’s disappearance, whereas others will want access to their online legacy: their photos, their last thoughts, even to connect with their friends.
Now, Facebook gives you the option to turn a deceased account into a memorial page by filling out a form and providing proof of their death. Memorialising a person’s profile means that their online presence can still be preserved to those who were connected with them. However, these profiles will no longer show up in searches or pop up as ‘people you may know’.
There is still the issue of family members who wish to access these memorial pages post-death. This is an issue that will be quite common after the death of a young person – for example, their parents may not have had Facebook accounts but now want to sign up in the hope that they can access some of their child’s online legacy. Or you may remember the case of Jessie Berlin, who’s father made a heart-wrenching appeal to Mark Zuckerberg asking him to access his late son’s account during Facebook’s anniversary, when the site allowed you to create short films dedicated to your online life so far.
I’ve chosen to put Facebook first in this list as I quite like the sensitive way in which it has handled it’s death policy – and although they can’t always get it ‘right’, they have shown that they are not only dedicated to improving their policy surrounding user deaths, but are willing to make these special-case exceptions.
Google’s accounts are all tied together – that means Google+, Gmail, Blogger, Youtube etc can all be handled under one policy. When a user passes away, all of these profiles are handled centrally.
As this means they are potentially dealing with much more sensitive information than other social networking accounts (for example, access to your emails) you must, understandably, be a lawful representative of the deceased and not only provice proof of death, but proof of online contact with said person.
All blogs, updates, Buzzes etc will not be touched until someone requests access to them and all of the access criteria has been met.
Twitter has also made it possible to deactivate an account on request. However, whereas with Facebook you can provide an obituary or newspaper article as proof of death, Twitter requires whoever is requesting the deactivation to be able to provide the users death certificate.
There is also an unconfirmed claim that an archive of a deceased users Tweets is available on request.
Locking up your Legacy
In light of these ‘coming of age’ issues, some companies have formed with the aim to help people in this situation. Legacy Locker, AssetLock and Slightly Morbid allow users to set up accounts and store their login details and digital assets in an online ‘safe’, specifying who will have access to them should the worst happen. Slightly Morbid even goes as far as to send an email to pre-selected recipients from ‘beyond the grave’, allowing you to voice your final words and wishes. Spooky huh? But it could be something that could become a necessity to more and more online users.
Death is always going to be a sensitive subject. The fundamentals of life, death and grief are still the same, but the way in which we handle them in the new digital age are still being very carefully learnt.
But with so many of us now living our lives online, it’s inevitable that one day our deaths will too be made an extension of this and the digital mourning process will continue to be fine-tuned.
Of course, everyone reacts differently in hard times or to difficult circumstances and these sites are never going to find the perfect way to handle death ‘correctly’.
But the fact remains that our own online legacy is something we are going to have to eventually plan for, or at least take into account much like we would with our wills or life insurance – while we are still ‘young ones’ and certainly long before we type our final posts.