A recent post in TechVibes alerted me to a new academic study of Facebook and mourning.
“Two researchers at the University of Toronto—Profeessor Rhonda McEwen and Librarian Kathleen Scheaffer—have completed a study on the methods and consequences of mourning on Facebook.”
According to the TechVibes article, the authors make 3 recommendations:
- Offer “digital estate options” to determine who can control the profile postmortem.
- Lock a dead person’s account, and automatically delete it after 50 years.
- Enable Facebook friends the same access to the page, respecting the privacy filters. Disable direct messaging to prevent shenanigans. Remove the profile from search. Enable loved ones to create memorial pages.
Interestingly, I’ve advocated for years that users need more options to control what happens to their Facebook accounts after death. It’s good to see this coming from other voices too.
The abstract of “Virtual Mourning and Memory Construction on Facebook” is below. Get the full study here.
Death rituals have evolved in cultures since man walked upright (and likely before.) So, in this digital world, with the Internet being a mere 25-years-old, and mainstream social media a scant 7-years-old, how are we as a digital culture adapting death rituals and traditions to this part of our new reality?
I’ve been struck by this three times in the last week.
Today, I read this post, There’s Nothing Virtual About Death, from blogger Mark Leslie expressing his sorrow for losing a friend, but also grappling with how he should mourn someone whom he only knows in a digital context. He did what many people who blog do, he memorialized her there. And, what I’ve found to be universal, he visited the online haunts where he came to know her.
Yesterday, I spoke with Canadian technology radio and television personality, Steve Dotto. He recounted the story of how he discovered the death of a friend: by receiving a Facebook friend request. He had been unaware of the person’s death and accepted the request right away. The next day, he checked the profile only to discover that the person had been dead for some time, but his family had opened this Facebook profile specifically to connect with the man’s friends and to inform them of his death.
Creating a R.I.P. page in Facebook is becoming quite a common way to create an online place for friends and family to come together as a digital community and pay tribute to their loved one. This method also allows people who are not Facebook friends with the deceased to join and participate. These pages are also open to the public and indexed by Google, making them easy to be found.
There is, also, the ability to memorialize an existing Facebook user’s account, freezing their profile, limiting friends to those already confirmed, and stripping personal information and status updates. Existing friends can still post to the deceased’s wall. But there are down-sides to this approach. Firstly, anyone with a link to an obituary can request memorialization, which means that the decision to do so can be removed from families and next-of-kin. Also, when status updates are removed in the process, it does not allow people to go back in time and review what the person had been saying. There is one story of a person who wrote his status updates as haikus. A friend requested memorialization without consulting the family and all of the haikus were lost in the process.
But, the family of Steve Dotto’s friend did not start a R.I.P. page. They did not memorialize and existing account. They created a brand new profile account, as the deceased was not previously on Facebook. And now the family were sending out friend requests on the deceased’s behalf.
Of course, this approach is bound to stir up some emotions in those who were unaware that their friend had passed away. And, likely even stronger emotions from those who were aware that their friend was dead. Why would the family choose this approach?
Because they thought this was the best way to deal with notifying people.
There’s another anecdote where a son was killed in a car accident. The family knew his password, accessed his Facebook account and were sending and accepting friend requests on behalf of their son. They also used their son’s account to send out notifications about a golf tournament in the deceased’s name to all of his Facebook friends. The woman who told me this story felt strongly that her friend’s account should not be used in this way and that she was upset getting these messages from her dead friend.
However, some people might feel comforted by the thought that the memory of their friend lives on and they may feel happy to receive Facebook messages, reminding them of the their friend.
And then, of course, there is blogger Derek K. Miller who’s last post went viral. He created his own memorial, his final statement on his views on life and a testament to how he would be remembered. Of course, this didn’t exclude thousands of people from paying tribute to their friend Derek on their own blogs as well (including me).
Death is such a uniquely personal experience. How one person copes with it will be very different from how another would. People will be at different stages of the grieving process. Individuals have varying intensities of relationships. There is plenty of room for people to have strong reactions to how digital affairs are handled post mortem.
The thing to remember is that, there are no rules right now. It is a wild west out there, with people trying to define new traditions and attempting to come to grips with the new reality of digital life and death. Everyone who acts, or doesn’t act, to memorialize an individual, or to use a deceased’s online account, is doing so because they feel it is the right thing to do. Cultural traditions are unifying to society at large, they give people solace (or an excuse), they provide a guide to how to handle difficult events, like death. In this new reality, we’re all figuring it out as we go along.
Are you interested in the conversation around digital death? Do you want to learn more about family access to accounts after a death, legal issues like terms of service and digital property rights, or archival and curation of data? What about the individual’s right to delete data and declare themselves digitally dead?
Now’s your chance to get involved.
Digital Death Day North America will see 75 – 125 attorneys, entrepreneurs, researchers, archivists and leading minds gather to discuss the issues shaping this emerging space. Add your voice to the group and share your ideas on how the future could be, and your perspective on what’s important.
From the organizers:
Digital Death Day is a collaborative unconference where attendees will work together to explore how we should deal with our online profiles after death. This is the 3rd Digital Death Day and the 2nd such event in North America. The event immediately follows the 12th Internet Identity Workshop planned for May 3-5 at the same location.
The unconference format allows for an agile event, where everyone is welcome to contribute. Beginning at 9:00 AM we start with a blank wall and though an hour-long, interactive process, create a full day, multi-track conference agenda that is relevant and inspiring to everyone in attendance. Digital Death Day will be facilitated by Kaliya Hamlin who has designed and facilitated over 100 unconferences for professional and technical communities.
- How can I decide what should be done with my social network profiles and other digital assets?
- How can I inform my online friends of my death and share with them my final messages?
- How can I be sure that big companies (like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft) will respect my wishes?
- Does the past have value? Should we make an effort to preserve it?
- Is it too old school to die and be dead?
- How will the wealth of preserved information change the way that future generations look back at us?
- How are you preparing for your own death?
- What services are available?
- What are the policies for e-mail accounts and social websites when you die?
- What about digital assets that are jointly held?
- What happens to the references to other people in the deceased person’s digital assets?
- What happens to the digital assets with references to the deceased person?
If you are an entrepreneur, Internet service professional, attorney, estate planner, researcher, technologist, archivist, policy maker, funeral director, a member of the media, or planning your digital will, your perspective and participation is needed an valuable.
Digital Death Day North America
May 6, 2011 9 AM TO 5 PM
Computer History Museum
1401 N Shoreline Blvd
Mountain View, CA 94043
12th Internet Identity Workshop
May 3 – 5, 2011
Online digital executor services, data safety deposit boxes, death notification services, your last words, password keepers – whatever you want to call them, a wide range of online services have popped up over the last two years to help you manage your digital accounts, files, notifications and memorials. Some are free while others carry a monthly or yearly fee to maintain. Some services are stripped down and may only have one function, others have a dizzying array of features.
As consumers, there is no resource that looks at these new online services and their features objectively to help you choose the right one for your needs.
I plan to change that.
This summer, I will be creating on a questionnaire and will be inviting service providers to complete it. And, I’ll individually test and review the services of each participating company.
Preliminary examinations of service providers show theses basic feature sets:
- Notifications – often in the form of prearranged emails sent with final instructions for managing digital accounts and/or messages for loved ones.
- Passwords & Files – store passwords, text, photo, audio and video files online to be accessed by a designated individual(s) or yourself in case of emergency
- Memorials – create a living or posthumous online memorial or obituary
Emphasis on the feature sets varies, though security is a top concern of most services. Some companies even offer to change content on your social networks or delete accounts according to your instructions.
Your Biggest Questions
The top three questions raised when I mention online notification and data distribution services are:
- How is my death confirmed and verified?
- What happens to my data if the company ceases to operate?
- Are my wishes legally recognized?
Other answers I’ll be seeking from service providers:
- How many servers are used, where are they located, and what redundancy is in place for back ups?
- What is the security process, which encryption is used and where?
- How easy is the service to use?
- What are the file storage limits?
- Is there social network integration?
- Are there tools to help keep my account up-to-date easier?
- Can I export my account information?
What about you? Which questions would you like to see answered to help you decide which service is right for you?
If you are a service provider, I’d like to hear from you too.
Please leave me a comment below, Tweet me @Digital Legacy, or send me an email: Adele |at| DeathAndDigitalLegacy |dot| com .