As the depth and complexities of living life online grow in magnitude, so does the urgency of developing ways to deal with death in a digital world. The need to manage death online has become more apparent with the rise of social media. Even before the social media age, email accounts, online subscriptions, and forum names called for some sort of management after death. By and large, the early solution came in simply ignoring the issue. Email accounts went cold, subscriptions ended when payments stopped coming, and forum posts became buried or lost in the wasteland of abandoned or 404ed sites. For the most part, these elements of an online life were private, the inevitable byproducts of managing a modern digital life not yet intrinsically connected with an offline identity. Social media helped create the opposite, composing highly visible and often highly public online reflections of a human life that can live on past their progenitors and continue to interact with the living. The accounts of the deceased persist beyond their death, with automatic reminders for birthdays or photos unexpectedly (and often distressingly) popping up on feeds. Facebook, the current king of social media, took a good amount of criticism for inadvertently including photos of deceased friends and family in their automatically generated end of year content, adding the ignorantly cheerful line, “Here’s What Your Year Looked Like!”
Facebook’s error demonstrates that the line between digital life and death is not easily apparent to the automated machinery of algorithms and computations that determine what appears on social media feeds. Social media outlets are for the living, and are not geared towards afterlife concerns. The result is that the development of a manageable digital afterlife has been a slow one. Early on, accounts identified as belonging to a deceased individual were deleted on Facebook and Twitter, a move that angered some who wanted to keep the accounts open. Maintaining the social media accounts of the dead in an available but inactive format, even if only for a short period, provided a kind of online memorial where final thoughts and goodbyes could be exchanged, and provided the opportunity to save a photograph or reread old correspondence one more time. It was only in February of 2015 that Facebook announced the ability to designate a “legacy contact” who will be given the limited ability to post a message on a dead persons account, respond to friend requests, and archive posts and photos. Keeping with privacy concerns, messages and other information are off-limits to the legacy contact. Previously Facebook only offered a memorialization service, which froze the account and removed it from searches.
Acknowledgment of the need to address digital death has grown, yet the steps taken vary from platform to platform. It’s not a small issue. A 2012 report estimates 30 million Facebook users have died. Twitter now lets family members delete an account once a person has passed, but sticks to a policy of not granting control over the account. Google has a feature euphemistically called an “Inactive Account Manager” which automatically follows several protocols once a certain period of inactivity has elapsed. The protocols include mass deletion, or giving partial access to the accounts to specified individuals, all depending on the users choices. Instagram, a part of the Facebook empire, also sticks to the memorialization or deletion options, although that may change based on Facebook’s February decision on legacy contacts. Microsoft will provide all email data on a CD upon notice of a death, and close the account. The major issue at play has been the legal ability (and willingness) of corporations to share information from users, even if that user had died or has made provisions for the use of their digital accounts. On a larger scale, the internet has created legal and moral conundrums unheard of in the past. Unlike a bank deposit box, digital lives are locked away under tight security and passwords that are generally only known to the user. When next-of-kin attempt to retrieve the elements of a digital life, they are blocked by laws that were never meant to deal with the end of a digital life.
While managing an online afterlife has only recently become a consideration, digital commemoration of the departed had a history long before social media. In the early days of the internet, web pages set up to commemorate dead friends and family members were not unusual. These artifacts of the 1990s, often complete with gifs of torches and photos, served as online memorials, perhaps with the expectation that the new digital frontier would allow for an truly eternal remembrance. However, with the demise of the free services such as Geocities that dominated personal web spaces in the early internet days or the failure to keep paying fees, many of these sites have vanished from the internet. The wake of 404ed sites and broken links echo the currently ephemeral nature of our online lives bound to accounts that will only last as long as the services that provide access. New companies have sprung up offering to create online memorials, although claims of lifetime memberships may prove erroneous with the current nature of the internet. Even so, some of these services are helping blur the line between digital and physical death by placing QR codes on grave markers to access online memorial sites.
Not every part of death online is in the hands of others, and planning for a digital afterlife doesn’t preclude final communications or taking control of matters directly. New services offer users the chance to file a last message on social media, to be posted at a specified time on social media. A growing amount of literature on the management of digital assets advise users to make plans to ensure access to their data and accounts—although companies like Facebook have proven willing to change passwords and block access to the account of a deceased individual. A small industry of online digital legacy management has appeared, promising to handle the myriad complexities of digital death. What is vital is to understand that the end of life online requires planning just as surely as the end of physical existence, except that with the digital footprint internet users leave behind, death online may only be a new beginning.
She’s Still Dying on Facebook
Google’s Inactive Account Manager
Here’s What Happens to Your Facebook Account After You Die
Facebook’s page for Memorialization Requests
Facebook Apologies over “Cruel” Year in Review clips
A listing of online memorial sites, many now gone
Dealing with the Digital Afterlife of a Hacker