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Life after death confirmed. It’s called the Internet.

What happens to your online presence when you die?

 

Death and sentimentality are on my mind this week having just lost a dear friend too soon. Yet, in my time of grief, I can seriously say, thank God for social media. The virtual worlds we live in -- Instagram updates, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, Online bank accounts, Digital investment portfolios -- are also the ones we stay dead in. Forever.

My friend was fairly active on his Facebook account, and I’m grateful I can go back to his page, anytime I want, reminisce and feel connected once more. But do I want to receive a birthday reminder for him? No, I do not. The nature of those unintended announcements are, at best, morbidly absurd and at worst, downright disrespectful to the concept that he should be resting in peace.

People die everyday. Sorry. It’s just a fact. So what are social media platforms doing to handle accounts of the deceased, and what are your legal rights - either as the pre-departed or as a close relation to the actually departed?

Turns out, it’s complicated. And cumbersome. For now.

Our collective online presence has barely entered its teenage years, so it’s a sure bet that the number of digital accounts belonging to dead people will only increase. Evan Carroll, co-author of Your Digital Afterlife, says, "We have entered this time as a society where we're a bit ahead of our laws and our policies with respect to our digital property."

While social media platforms haven’t yet fully figured out how to handle these inactive accounts, we must assume that how and what actions providers take for their late customers will, in time, begin to be formally legislated. Until then, it is still up to each company to create its own policies and expedite them at a rate they deem fit.

 

So, just as we make arrangements for our physical assets when we’re gone, shouldn’t we also make a plan for our online social media and other accounts? Or, do you want to burden your heirs with the task of closing down your online banking and investment accounts once they’ve been emptied or transferred? Left open, they’re easy prey for identity thieves and hackers.

As for your social media accounts, by doing nothing prior to your big event, your successors risk losing all your digital assets like personal photos, videos and posts. Some providers will eventually deactivate them due to lack of use. Twitter, for example, deactivates after six months; Google after nine months. Other platforms, such as Pinterest and LinkedIn, have no automatic deactivation policies and will not release personal logon details, even to a will executor or heir.

As nice as it may be for your loved ones to still see your undead social media activity, it would be pretty darn creepy for friends and family to suddenly receive your next work anniversary notice or a ‘People You May Know’ friend suggestion, seemingly sent from the afterlife.

Take a look at the infographic from WebpageFX that succinctly describes the current patchwork of how Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google now handle your digital artifacts once you’ve joined the great beyond.

For example, Facebook accounts can be memorialized at the request of family members or friends. When an account is memorialized (a successor will first need to present a death certificate and some supporting documentation), your timeline will no longer appear in public spaces such as “People You May Know,” birthday reminders or ads. And, depending on the privacy settings of the deceased person’s account, friends can continue to share memories on the memorialized timeline.

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That all sounds fine, however, there have been some issues with the expediency of fulfilling these requests. One man recently wrote to The Guardian complaining that after repeated attempts to contact Facebook over a six-month period to memorialize his late wife’s page, his appeal had still not been processed. But let’s concede for now that memorializing a Facebook page is doable. Memorialized pages could tastefully serve as a very 21st-century place for communal bereavement where friends and family can leave messages and reminisce with fellow mourners.

Google offers a feature called Inactive Account Manager that allows you to specify in advance what should happen if it doesn’t hear from you in a time period you have pre-indicated. You can, for example, ask Google to pass your personal logon details to another individual, delete the account or even send an auto responder like, “Hey I’m no longer checking this account,” or “Hey, I’ve passed into the afterlife and it’s crazy amazing.” That would be weird. Or maybe awesome.

The fact is social media platforms retain control of your digital stuff unless it’s appropriately bequeathed. Far better to bequeath away, setting things up while you’re still with pulse so your loved ones can exercise some control over the preservation of the digital you after the physical you has checked out.

Give them the passwords and/or close down your accounts in advance. Download the best memorabilia to your hard drive. Specify arrangements in your will. That way, even your as yet unborn great-great granddaughter could someday be able to flip through your Instagram photos and YouTube videos to see what your life was like in the early 2000’s -- just as we’re able to do today, though in a much more limited, analog way, with treasured family photo albums and heirlooms from our own ancestors.

Now that an estimated 30 million (and counting) Facebook accounts belong to dead people, some see this situation as a business opportunity. Already a growing number of businessesexist with whom you can make arrangements (prior to your passing, obviously). Upon being notified by your designates of your well-documented death, these companies will send your passwords and directives to the persons you’ve specified, allowing them access to and control over the online you.

Given that no overarching legislation yet exists regarding what should or should not happen to the online “you” once the real you departs, experts urge you to formalize your wishes as part of your will. And, while you’re still with heartbeat, better delete those things that are really private. You wouldn’t want to traumatize your great-great granddaughter.

 

About: Aryn Kalson-Sperandio is a trend spotter and content creator for entrepreneurs across North America. She co-founded the agency, Kalson Communications, which helps clients navigate the murky waters where traditional and new media intersect and develops campaigns based on solid, beautiful research.

 

Naomi Le Bihan