Death and your digital self: the issues you should think about
Long after we die, an imprint of our selves will linger for years, even decades, online. It's a troubling thought. But as more of our lives are lived online it becomes an important consideration.
What do you want to happen to your online self? Do you want your selfies, posts and videos to remain, perhaps as a memorial? How will it reflect on you long after you've vanished? Do you want to delete your entire online legacy, like throwing old letters into the fire? Is the person you present to the world online really you? And what do you want to do with it?
Currently there are no uniform policies across social media and online profiling sites regarding what happens when one of their users dies. As a result this raises questions about:
- Privacy. Do you want anyone else accessing your Facebook profile orgoing through your emails after you’ve died?
- Access. Are you leaving behind the login details and passwords needed for a friend or family member to deactivate your accounts? Should the sites themselves automatically grant access to a deceased profile if a family member wants to close the account?
- Legacy. Do you want your online self to remain ‘live’ as a legacy? Do you want friends and family to continue posting in your name? How do you want to preserve your online interactions and how will that data stay relevant as file formats and technology change and develop?
Contents of this guide
What happens when you die online?
Privacy of your accounts
While most social media and online accounts have a policy to dictate what happens to your account when you die, this still leaves you with a lot of privacy decisions. Do you want your future children reading your Facebook status updates or do you want your partner reading through your private emails? Take a second to think about the contents of your inbox or the photos on your Facebook page – what digital dirty laundry would you be leaving behind if you died? When you die, once private information is no longer bound by the terms and conditions of your friendship, but by the terms and conditions of your email provider or social network.
The various deceased policies of social media sites you may use include:
Twitter. Family and friends can notify Twitter of your death and your account will be removed. Family members can also save a backup of all of your public tweets. Twitter simply needs the name and contact details of the family or friend deactivating the deceased account and their relationship to the deceased, the username of the deceased Twitter account or a link to the profile page, and a link to a public obituary or news article. Twitter has the specific firstname.lastname@example.org email address for this process.
Facebook. The social network has a feature where you can download all of your photos, videos, wall posts, notes, messages, events and friends which can be great for your records, as well as help your family manage your account after your death. Your family will need to know your username and password to access your account and archive the information and deactivate your account.
Family or friends can also complete a form and upload a copy of the death certificate to confirm your death and your profile will be officially memorialised. This means you won’t show up in Facebook suggestions and status updates won’t show up in the news feeds but your profile will remain as an online memorial.
But even when a Facebook account has been deactivated, Facebook itself retains a copy of all information and there is currently no way to permanently delete a profile.
LinkedIn offers little in the way of legacy management or death options but does allow family members to request a profile be removed using this form.
YouTube allows a user to delete their account. If you family members don't know a deceased person's password they can submit a request using this form.
Google and Gmail. Google will provide account information to family members at their discretion. Requests should be made using this form.
Yahoo and Flickr. Yahoo owns Flickr and both sites have a strict digital death policy. Family members can contact Yahoo using this form, attach a death certificate and then deactivate an account or change its privacy settings.
Outlook/Hotmail. Family members of deceased Microsoft users should contact Microsoft and make a next of kin process request.
eBay. The company will work with family members to verify a user's death and delete their account. eBay may need to call to verify the account information.
PayPal. In order to close a deceased PayPal account the user's legal executor will need to submit a copy of the death certificate, a copy of their own ID, information about the account and a legal will designating them as executor.
eHarmony.com. The legal executor should contact eHarmony and request the account be closed. eHarmony will retain some customer information even after an account is closed.
Setting up your accounts for when you pass away
Maintaining your online legacy with a digital will
A digital will functions like a normal will but for your online existence. When making a digital will you should consider the following:
- Executor. Designate someone to be the executor of your digital will.
- Instructions. Leave clear, written instructions for each of your online accounts, including what you want to do with the account and its data and contents.
- Login details. Ensure your executor also has the passwords and usernames for the accounts.
- Death certificate. Ensure your executor has access to your death certificate.
Not every country, state or legal system recognises digital wills. Therefore it's a good idea to check the relevant law and incorporate your digital legacy plans into your normal will.
Always seek legal advice from a qualified professional if you are unsure.
Death and your online business
If you run an online business you’re going to need to leave behind a lot more information and more detailed instructions about how to manage your online presence after you die. You can also put this information in your will, making sure you include the following:
- Online company procedure. Make sure that you have separate business and personal online accounts, as the person you name to take care of your personal social media profiles after you die may be a different person to your business successor.
- Business plans: Consider what you would like to happen with your online business, your blog and your company social media profiles after you die.
- Leave instructions: Consider whether the person you are leaving control of your online business to will know how to manage a blog and use all of the features of a Facebook page.
- Leave a message: Part of leaving your online business to someone else to run after you die is letting people know about the changeover. Therefore, take the time to write a short note which your executor can post to your blog, Facebook, Twitter and your website.
Example of a digital legacy: Eva Markvoort's story
Eva Markvoort was a young Canadian woman who died from Cystic Fibrosis in March 2010. Eva started blogging in 2006 to create a chronicle of her life, having suffered from Cystic Fibrosis since she was a young girl.
Eva’s blog grew enormously in popularity and just over a month before her death she posted her final video, telling her friends and followers, "My life is ending."
While Eva didn’t leave a message for her family to post on her blog after her death, her parents have continued to post on her page to keep all of her fans up to date with the continuing battle to find a cure for CF.
Death and your online intellectual property
Until 1953 in the US, the right to use a person’s image or identity – such as in the case of the identifying features of celebrity – was reserved by that person alone. The right of publicity however, allowed people to construct their identity as property which could be sold.
However, in most parts of the world, the right of publicity ceases when you die, at which time a person’s identity can be available for public use. Therefore, even if you put it in your will that you didn’t want your identity to be used after you die, there is no legal basis to enforce these wishes.
State and federal laws also protect a person’s privacy, but this right also ends when they die. Therefore, even if you want to maintain your privacy after your death, there are limits to the length your digital executors can go to enforce this wish.
In 2014 the U.S. state of Delaware passed a law giving a legal executor the same access to a deceased person's digital assets as to their physical assets. This was the first law of its kind in America.
Choosing a digital executor
If you decide to delete your digital legacy, you will want to shop around for a digital executor who can help you organise a digital will and manage the aspects of your digital self you do want to keep alive.
When choosing a digital executor you should consider the following:
- Passwords and usernames. A list of all the sites you are subscribed to and the username and password for each will make the process easier. In many cases, providers of social media and email sites won’t give anyone access to your accounts after you die unless they have your password.
- Online self vs reality. Consider how much your friends and family know about what you do and who you are online. Who do you want sifting through your online profiles and who do you know who has the technical ability to navigate them?
- Making the call. Typically the job of notifying friends and family about the death of a loved one was done in a series of dreaded phone calls, but you can have your digital undertaker use your online profiles to notify your online communities about your death.
- Trust: You need to choose someone you trust completely to execute your digital estate after you die. You want someone who will respect your wishes and will follow them to the letter.
- Capability. Your digital undertaker must first have access to all of your login details. They should also be someone who is familiar and confident with the social media platforms you operate on and the person will need to outlive you to be capable of carrying out your wishes.
The future of death and the Internet
‘Where do you see yourself if five years?’ is a common question in a job interview. But where do you see yourself 100 years from now? Our digital selves may live online in ways that seem almost impossible to imagine right now.
Some possibilities for the future of our digital selves are raised by Adam Ostrow in his TedTalk on the subject. Ostrow talks about using our accumulated data to create increasingly lifelike digital selves.
The question is not whether this becomes possible but whether you want it. Do you want a machine generated version of yourself to continue to exist after you die?
Your mind file
One option Ostrow talks about is the eventual ability to download your digital self to a robot or generate a hologram based on all of the information we contribute about ourselves online.
Currently you can do this by creating a mind file, where you upload biographical pictures, videos and documents to a digital archive. The information is then preserved for future generations, and through geo mapping, timelines and tagging the information a comprehensive file about your life is stored, even down to the places you’ve been and the people you’ve met.
From there you can create a computer based avatar which can interact and respond in the way you would, having learnt your attitudes, values, mannerisms and beliefs from your mind file. You can then connect with others who have stored their mind files in the same way. One such system is Life Naut.
Currently all Life Naut mind file accounts are free, and with an account you have a secure space to store your life experiences, plus you can back up your information offsite. Storing your mind file you are able to participate in the long term computer science research, which will continue to explore the ways technology can extend life.
Digital death used to save lives
What we leave behind
What does your profile say about you?
You don’t need to have uploaded all of your life experiences into an avatar or a computer program for your digital self to tell the story of your life. Journalists are already using Facebook and other social media to build a profile of the people in their articles who have died; even before social media a journalist would speak to your friends and family to find out more about you.
Therefore, consider what you’ve already left behind online to date. Unlike previous generations we have some measure of control over how we are perceived and remembered after we die. Rather than being remembered for a series of old love letters which reveal your infidelity, you are in control of what is out there online, and what is preserved.
When you follow the tips above in creating a digital will and deciding how to leave a digital legacy, you maintain privacy where it is needed, you reveal and save what you want to maintain your digital self after your death and you choose what your profile says about you.
Digital cultural heritage
Then there is the question of how the information you are leaving behind will be used, and should be used. In the past documents, letters, photos and artefacts were preserved and studied from the past, in order to learn more about our ancestors and in turn ourselves.
However, with so much information being stored digitally about every single one of us, were we really meant to live forever, and in such vivid detail? As of March 2017 Facebook has over 1 billion users. That is a staggering amount of people, and a simply enormous amount information being shared every day. How important is this information?
How many deceased pages will there be in 10 years, how will Facebook and the non-tech savvy families of these people manage this amount of digital content?
Facebook for the dead
The web comic artist and scientist Randall Munroe was once asked if the number of dead people on Facebook would ever outnumber the living. He crunched the numbers and found that the dead might outnumber the living on Facebook as early as the 2060s or as late as the 2130s. The crucial variable is Facebook's popularity in the future, which is impossible to know. If the social network declines in popularity there will be more dead users than live ones by the 2060s. But if Facebook maintains its current popularity the dead will not dominate until the 2130s.
Historians and internet archaeologists of the future will be faced with a daunting task: sorting through near-infinite reams of human-created data. There will be more information available about the humblest 21st century person's life than of any historical figure of the past. It is comforting, in a way, to think of our lives, actions and personalities being recorded so accurately. But given the sheer amount of data and people, it's also very humbling.
None of us is ever meant to live forever, and perhaps there is a reason why our memories fade and our recollections become blurry. So is it really necessary that our digital selves are preserved just as they are today, to be kept long after we’re dead? Perhaps our digital selves should be allowed to grow old gradually.
Building in a mechanism to allow us to digitally forget gracefully was the suggestion of Mayer-Schönberger in his book ‘Delete’. Mayer-Schönberger proposed files that came with expiry dates so they would simply vanish after a certain amount of time, or data which would ‘digitally rust’ unless we made a conscious effort to preserve it. Several companies are taking up these ideas, a German business called X-Pire which allows you to add an expiry date to images you’ve uploaded to sites like Facebook.
This would remove the issue of the internet being filled with more data from the dead than from the living, and means that if your family and friends want to memorialise you online they will take care of your files to keep the rust off.
Just because the process of digital death is so unfamiliar doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about what you want to happen to your online self when you die. Start by looking at what would be left behind if you died tomorrow. Consider how the world would see you through your digital profiles, and look at what sort of digital legacy you want to leave behind to turn all of those blog posts and status updates into something truly meaningful.
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