As we have written before, social media raises a lot of questions when it comes to the subject of death and dying.
Before everyone started embracing online life you didn’t have to worry about the fate of your social media profiles after you die. Now it is a pressing issue. In my own personal Facebook stream I get birthday alerts at least five times a year from dead people. It’s rather unnerving.
Finally, it seems that some of the big players are starting to address the fate of this legacy data. Facebook set up the ability to “memorialize” the account of a deceased member back in 2009, but only in the most cursory fashion. (Via the Facebook Blog):
We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those who are no longer with them, which is why it’s important when someone passes away that their friends or family contact Facebook to request that a profile be memorialized. For instance, just last week, we introduced new types of Suggestions that appear on the right-hand side of the home page and remind people to take actions with friends who need help on Facebook. By memorializing the account of someone who has passed away, people will no longer see that person appear in their Suggestions.
When an account is memorialized, we also set privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. We try to protect the deceased’s privacy by removing sensitive information such as contact information and status updates. Memorializing an account also prevents anyone from logging into it in the future, while still enabling friends and family to leave posts on the profile Wall in remembrance.
Not quite the approach I would have taken, but at least they attempted to address the problem. Again, this is an issue no one ever faced before the digital age, so it’s going to take some experimentation to find the right way to handle things.
For Twitter users, there is a service called _LIVESON that will keep tweeting on your behalf after you shuffle off the mortal coil. The premise is that you join while you are still breathing and it analyzes your tweeting contents and habits. As it learns, it starts tweeting to a custom Twitter feed which the user logs into in order to give it feedback. In addition, the user designates an executor who will have the ability to decide whether the _LIVESON tweets should continue or to pull the plug.
I must admit that I find _LIVESON really creepy. There is no aspect of memorialization or commemoration to it at all. Instead, it tries to simulate the tweeting habits of the decreased.
Then we get to the most recent endeavor, Google’s newly announced attempt to address the issue. Oscar Quine of the The Independent reports:
Google’s new service, entitled ‘Inactive Account Manager’, gives users the option to delete the contents of their accounts, including their Gmail inboxes, should they remain inactive for three, six or nine months.
Alternatively, data can be passed on to selected contacts from all Google services, including YouTube, Google+ and the user’s address book. Nicola Plant, partner at the solicitor Pemberton Greenish, who has written a research paper on digital estates, welcomed the move. As it stands, she says, access tends to ‘die with you’.
All these efforts are in their infancy. It will be interesting to see how our approach to death and digital legacy evolve over the coming years.
George "Loki" Williams is the community and brand manager for award wining game company Savage Mojo, Ltd. and the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content and online communications. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters, Kobold Press, and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, The Gambit Weekly, and NOLA.com, among others.