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Life after death through social media

By William E. Lewis Jr.

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 24 2012 10:17 a.m. MST

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Many people live long after they're gone through social media. There is no such thing as a digital death.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and many other major social media sites have policies regarding the death of its users. Are you familiar with them?

While losing a family member, friend, colleague, classmate or connection is often painful, imagine the reminder of the dearly departed when they appear on your Facebook Timeline, Twitter Feed, MySpace Stream or LinkedIn profile. This is especially so when the deceased user is received as a “friend recommendation" through mutual friends.

From the digital age of sending a simple email or text message to an age of information overload where we publish our entire lives through timelines, tweets or status updates, many social media users tell all and provide all. From photographs and blog posts to complete personal histories, our entire lives have become an open book.

Will your Facebook friends or Twitter followers know when you die? With MySpace itself dying a slow death, will anyone miss you or notice you gone? As for LinkedIn, a few too many profile views should reveal your dearly departed status.

As a social media guru with over 76,000 contacts spread across six social media networks, one of them – Barry Epstein, of Boca Raton, Fla. – advised that he was closing the accounts of his recently deceased son. Aware of the “memorial” policies of Facebook, I was prompted to investigate the various social media policies of deceased users' accounts and what can be done to preserve, memorialize or delete them following death.

“I believe social media is really useful for memorializing the deceased,” stated Epstein. “No matter what happens at the memorial service, people are using social media as a way to deal with their grief, but in a way that funerals don’t allow.”

With over 1.1 million social media users dying annually, family, friends, social media providers and the Internet are left to deal with a deceased user’s digital bits. When we die, who takes control of our social media networks?

"The interactions of a person through social media are a facet of a life and supply some tangible evidence about what they valued and who they chose to interact with while alive,” said Daniel Forrester, author of "Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization." “While the person has died, their digital life already has been imprinted with their permission and thus it should continue on.”

Facebook

Although Facebook was not the first social media provider to establish a policy for its 800 million users worldwide, it was the highest profile because of the way it addressed the issue. Rather than allow a family member to take control of a deceased user’s account, Facebook instead decided to take things a step further and allowed them to be deleted or memorialized.

A memorialized Facebook account preserves the deceased user's online identity so that only confirmed friends can visit their profile to read about them, view photos and leave posts of remembrance.

When Facebook converts an account into a memorial, the deceased user no longer pops up in Facebook's friend suggestions, thus we are not constantly reminded of their disappearance. The person's profile automatically becomes private to everyone but confirmed friends. Personal identifiers and contact information are also removed to prevent hacking and to respect privacy.

To establish a Facebook memorial, a family member or friend completes a special contact form providing proof of death. This can include an obituary, news article or Internet link. Unlike other social media networks, Facebook allows non-family members to perform this task, which is helpful in situations where the deceased user's friends are more Internet-savvy than family.

Twitter

Just as Facebook allows users to request an account be deleted or memorialized when a family member or friend has passed away, Twitter allows for a permanent backup of the deceased user’s public tweets or a complete account deletion.

Profiles of deceased users will no longer appear in the “Who to Follow” suggestion box and previously scheduled tweets are not published. At present, the profiles of deceased users look exactly the same as those of living users and can be followed and listed.

To establish a permanent backup or to delete a deceased user’s Twitter account, a family member is required to submit the user name or profile page link along with proof of death in the form of a public obituary or news article. Twitter also advises, “Please note that we cannot allow access to the account or disclose other non-public information regarding the account.”

MySpace

As one of the oldest social networks, MySpace has a deceased user policy that is more of a standardized policy of deletion rather than memorializing like Facebook or Twitter. In addition, MySpace does not adequately address privacy concerns and is susceptible to hacking.

To delete a MySpace profile, a family member must contact MySpace via e-mail with proof of death and the user's unique identification number. A username or profile link is generally not acceptable.

"Unfortunately, we can't let you access, edit or delete any of the content or settings on the user's profile yourself, but we'll be sure to review and remove any content you find objectionable," reads MySpace's policy.

This policy is not particularly helpful for older relatives that are not Internet-savvy and makes it almost impossible to remove a deceased user’s existence from MySpace.

Strangely enough, hackers may attempt to access a deceased user’s account without authorization. Contained on MySpace’s policy page is an admission that anyone with access to the deceased user's email account can simply "retrieve the password through the 'forgot password link' and make necessary changes."

LinkedIn

Unlike the personal social networks of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace where a family member or friend must make a death notification, anyone can notify LinkedIn about the profile of a deceased member.

LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional business network with over 120 million members. According to LinkedIn, it will delete the profile of a deceased colleague, classmate or connection upon receipt of proof of death. There is no provision to memorialize the profile of a deceased LinkedIn user.

To delete the profile of a LinkedIn user, a “Verification of Death Form” must be submitted online, by fax to (402) 493-3548, or by mail to LinkedIn Corporation, 2029 Stierlin Ct., Mountain View, CA 94043. Proof of death in the form of a death certificate, obituary, news article or Internet link must be included.

LinkedIn is clear to point out that an email address registered to the deceased member's account must be included. “Without this important piece of information, we will not be able to address your request.”

“You can argue that permanently archiving a digital life will allow some survivors to better reflect on the person and even discover new connections and insights that would have faded too quickly with only human memory,” concluded Forrester.

Bill Lewis is principal of William E. Lewis Jr. & Associates, a solutions based professional consulting firm specializing in the discriminating individual, business or governmental entity. To learn more, please visit www.williamlewis.us.

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