What happens to social media when we’re no longer around to update it? Would you sign up for an online will?

Image courtesy of Flickr user las – initially

I scroll through her page which is consumed with posts from friends and family; words such as “missing you”, and “I wish you were here with us”, seem to fill the page. Facebook tells me she changed her profile picture on March 18th, and I stare at the face of a friend whom I haven’t seen in two years, a friend who passed away two years ago in a fatal car accident.

For many of us whom use social networking sites, we are often updating it daily with photos, new statuses, check-ins and more. Today, an individual may have multiple social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more and it is through these services that so many of us have created online identities. While these sites remain such a large part of our daily lives, most of us never stop to think about how our personal sites and online identities will survive after we pass. In a Huffington Post article, it is stated that “an estimated 30 million virtual profiles on Facebook have outlived [their creators]”–thus one is forced to wonder what happens to these profiles on Facebook and social networking sites alike when we are gone(HuffPost)? Well, in today’s society, businesses are capitalizing on the concept of a “digital afterlife”, or an online will that will help many online identities survive their creators, while also simultaneously acting as online memorials.

In Anne Eiseberg’s New York Time’s article, “Bequeathing the Keys to Your Digital Afterlife”, she poses the question “Who gets the photographs and the e-mail stored online, the contents of a Facebook account, or that digital sword won in an online game?”, then goes on to state “These things can be important to the people you leave behind” (NYT). Recently, businesses such as Google have jumped at the opportunity to help people create a sort of will for their online lives, protecting them and their loved ones online accounts in the event of a death. While the overseeing of the digital after life option may sound slightly morbid to some, it is in fact a practice that is becoming widely encouraged by many, including the United State’s government (read why here).


Image courtesy of Flickr user kitieas4

In explaining what services are provided though an online afterlife, Eisenberg states Google’s policy:

Google has ways to make sure that your electronic pulse has really gone silent; it checks for traces of your online self, for example, by way of Android check-ins, Gmail activity and Web history. Then, a month before it pulls the plug, Google alerts you by text and e-mail, just in case you’re still there. If silence has indeed fallen, Google notifies your beneficiaries and provides links they can follow to download the photographs, videos, documents or other data left to them, said Nadja Blagojevic, a Google manager” (NYT).

However, websites like Facebook and Twitter have their own options as well. For Facebook, the social networking site allows people to have their profiles memorialized, and Twitter offers similar options. However, when you bring in a third-party to manage your online post-mortem, how far is one willing to go to help their digital identities survive?

For those dedicated to holding an online presence in death, the online application, LivesOn, “can keep a Twitter personality active after the owner has died. This includes creating new posts and even interacting with other users. The app uses artificial intelligence to track activity on your personal account so that it can eventually emulate the activity on a LivesOn account” (SmallBiz). In another interesting application, Deadsoci.al “gives users the ability to create their own social media messages that will publish after death. The service is free but also requires a social media executor. Users can leave text, audio or video messages to post on a certain date or after death. These can include general posts to an entire network or personalized messages to certain people”, thus their own voice can survive and not a robots as in LivesOn (SmallBiz).

However, for those who may be horrified by such sites, there are other third parties that offer less invasive options. For example, AssetLock is an “online safe deposit box that can store passwords, files, instructions and other information. It’s not specifically for social media. But you can use it to give others access to your accounts and instructions about how to handle them”, allowing family members and friends to run your sites for you while it also gives them clearance to access personal information, photos, and more (SmallBiz).

So why is it that so many find it important to have their digital identities survive? If anything, the ability to have accounts such as Facebook survive those who pass away, offers friends and families a place to grieve together and write posts to commemorate those who have died. In Justine Van Der Leun’s article, “Using Facebook to Grieve”, quotes Doctor Ursula Weide, a grief, death and bereavement specialist, stating, “[Facebook] helps people continue to communicate….[it] keeps the person alive” (Van Der Leun). 

For me personally, I appreciate having a place to write down my thoughts and feelings about a friend’s passing while also being supported through others on the memorialized pages of the deceased. In Jaweed Kaleem’s article, “Death on Facebook Now Common as ‘Dead Profiles’ Create Vast Virtual Cemetery”, he states that “the Web is profoundly changing the life of someone’s memory after their death”, as they remain present to us through social media (HuffPost). He goes on to further explain that “the stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — essentially supposed that people would eventually get over the death of a loved one. Some of that thinking continues today with the shift of grieving to social media”, and we are still adjusting to this shift.

While the idea of an online will to control one’s digital afterlife is encouraged by many in today’s society, it remains a very controversial topic. Many believe that an online presence of the deceased hinders one’s grieving process, and many criticize that it allows people to feel as if they are participating in commemorating the deceased when in actuality, they are simply typing words onto a page in cyberspace instead of perhaps writing a card, or visiting a grave (HuffPost).

As I continue to scroll through the Facebook page of a friend who passed away two years ago, I enjoy reading the stories and memories shared with her that friends often post to her wall. Her parents often create statuses and updates thanking those who help keep the memory of their daughter alive, while also notifying many of events happening in her honor. Perhaps, the survival of someone’s account who has passed away can seem foreign to many, but it is something we as users will have to adjust to as more and more people are joining social networking sites which will outlive them. There are many options available to help one’s media survive in a digital afterlife, and many can find comfort in knowing their data, information, and photos will remain once they pass.

-Meghan Gambichler


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