Study on Facebook Mourning

February 12, 2014 · Posted in Research, Social Network · Comment 

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.

This article investigates the online information practices of persons grieving and mourning via Facebook. It examines how, or whether, these practices and Facebook’s terms of use policies have implications for the bereaved and/or the memory of the deceased. To explore these questions, we compared traditional publicly recorded asynchronous modes of grieving (i.e., obituaries) with Facebook’s asynchronous features (i.e., pages, photos, messages, profiles, comments). Additionally, by applying observational techniques to Facebook memorial pages and Facebook profiles, conducting a survey, and interviewing respondents as a follow-up to the survey, we examined the benefits of and issues surrounding online information sharing via Facebook when coping with the loss of another. We found that the immediacy of publishing comments, messages, wall posts, and photos provides Facebook mourners with a quick outlet for their emotions and a means of timely group support; however, these actions directly affect the online curation of the deceased’s self and memory and also create an environment of competition among mourners. The aforementioned benefits and complications of using Facebook during bereavement are shaped by the policies outlined by the social media platform.

Nebraska is Latest State to Address Digital Legacy

February 20, 2012 · Posted in Law · Comment 

nebraskaNebraska is the latest state to propose legislation to allow next of kin to control digital accounts after a user has passed away. Senator John Wightman is proposing Legistlative Bill 783 on behalf of the Nebraska Bar Association to clarify the rights of representatives of the deceased.

The proposed bill is modeled after Oklahoma’s digital property management after death law, that passed in 2010. The law states that “The executor or administrator of an estate shall have the poser, where otherwise authorized, to take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any microblogging or short message service website or any e-mail service websites.”

Idaho passed a similar law last year. Conneticut, Rhode Island, and Indiana have older legislation covering email and digital files.

The BBC told the story of a Nebraska woman who is affected by the remaining Facebook page of her sister. After 2-years, she has come to peace with the death of  Janna Moore Morin, but seeing her picture on Facebook each time they log in has become a constant reminder of her family’s loss.

“The only issue that we have now is that her picture’s always popping up and her picture’s always in your friends and after a while, it just gets to be enough. You get to the point where you’ve accepted things, and you want to see pictures when you want to see them, not just whenever they pop up. And so sometimes it’s almost a deterrent to going online or going on Facebook. One of my brothers…never even uses his account because he doesn’t like to be reminded every time he goes online.”

Currently, Facebook offers two options to deal with a deceased user’s account: you may request memorialization or request the account to be closed.

In the case of the Remember Janna Moore Morin page, her sister may feel differently than other members of her family about wanting the page removed. Janna’s father posts post messages of remembrance there frequently alongside posts from friends and family. This particular case may be another of a contrast in how people mourn online.

For those who do not want to be reminded of a departed one each time they log in to Facebook, there are options other than removing the page or personal profile that may be providing comfort to others.

Simply “unliking” a Facebook page will remove the updates from your news feed. However, the posts that your friends in common make may still appear in your news feed.

“Unfriending” will remove that person’s personal profile from your friends list. A word of caution, though: Unfriending a deceased person’s profile is permanent as there will be no way for a renewed friend request to be approved, so think carefully about this option.

However, to truly manage a deceased’s digital life after they’ve passed away, the legal representative needs the right to access accounts and files across the web. The next few years will see laws passed both in the United States and elsewhere to give executors and next-of-kin the teeth they need to carry out their loved ones’ wishes.

Additional Resources:

Grappling with Tradition

May 17, 2011 · Posted in Research · 1 Comment 

Photo: Adam Koszary

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.

Derek K. Miller’s Final Post

May 5, 2011 · Posted in Digital Executor, Interview · 2 Comments 
Photo: Kris Krug
Photo: Kris Krug

Derek K. Miller

June 30, 1969 – May 3, 2011

Read Derek K. Miller’s final Penmachine blog post here.
(Cached version.)

Derek K. Miller was an incredible man. He blogged his way through stage 4 metastic colorectal cancer. He coined the term “digital executor” in 2008. He was a father, husband, musician, podcaster, photographer, writer and inquisitive soul.

He blogged for more than 10 years, leaving behind a gift for us all. His children, Lauren (11) and Marina (13), will have an archive of their father’s insights and feelings about the world as a treasured part of their family history.

Derek’s father, Karl, was quoted today in the Vancouver Province newspaper, “He was proud of his blog, and now it is his legacy. It connects him to the world, and to his family, forever. We were there for him, but Derek was comfortable sharing his thoughts with a worldwide community.”

For everyone, but particularly those who are facing death as a result of cancer or other means, his blog shows how he extracted every last drop of joy that he could out of his life before the end. From his final post:

The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place. There is always more to find out. I don’t look back and regret anything, and I hope my family can find a way to do the same.

My Interview with Derek K. Miller

I had the great fortune of having a long conversation with Derek about digital legacy, digital identity and technology on May 28, 2010. Despite our intentions at the time, it would be our one and only discussion. He wrote a blog post about our “gabfest” then, which included his thoughts on preparing a digital legacy. I recorded our talk, with his permission, as an alternative to note-taking. When I wrote my post at the time, I promised to write more about the discussion we had. As sometimes happens in life, I didn’t get back to that plan.

As a tribute to Derek and his contribution to the topic of digital legacy and digital executorship, I’ve decided to post the entire unedited conversation here – late beginning, sketchy audio in places, and free-flowing. It’s clear from listening to it again how thoughtful and passionate Derek K. Miller was about technology and the effects that it has on our lives.

I’m feeling a loss today, but am grateful that he did so much to preserve his digital self for all of us to discover and learn from.

Tomorrow is Digital Death Day in Mountain View, CA. In our interview, we discussed last year’s event and I hope that Derek’s contributions to our burgeoning field are remembered there tomorrow.

My condolences to his wife Airdrie, Marina, Lauren and the rest of his family and loved ones.

Thanks to Dave Delaney who, while mourning the loss of his friend, volunteered to help me get this audio online.

Additional Resources:

CBC Radio “On the Coast” interview, rebroadcast May 4, 2011

CBC Radio “Spark” on Derek K. Miller, May 5, 2011

Vancouver Sun “A Death Foretold“, May 5, 2011

PodCamp Montreal This Weekend

September 9, 2010 · Posted in Conference, Event, Speaking · Comment 

(This has been cross-posted from my marketing blog. I spoke about Digital Legacy for the very first time at PodCamp Montreal in 2009. If you can make it to Montreal this weekend, I’d love to see you at my session.)

Despite not being a podcaster (yet), I love attending podcamps. This weekend is the third edition of PodCamp Montreal and the first time at UQAM’s Coeur des sciences. (It’s also my seventh PodCamp!)

Once again, I am looking forward to a weekend full of tech, social media and great discussions around digital communications and community. There will be 3 tracks of presentations this year; 2 in French, 1 in English.

I’m privileged to be speaking once again. I’ll be presenting a session that is specifically targeted to digital content creators, and is part of my digital legacy series:

Your Web Content : Forever or Fragile?
In the last 15 years we’ve converted analog to digital and put everything on the Web and told that it will be there forever. What if we’re wrong?

Sunday, September 12, 2010
9:30  AM
Chaufferie (hidden away at 175, avenue du Président-Kennedy)
Google Map

The full weekend schedule, including information about Friday’s first ever MediaCamp and the kick off party is here.

Can’t make it to PodCamp Montreal? Check the session schedule to see which sessions will be live streamed to the Internet. (Yes, mine will be.)

Thanks to the PodCamp organizing team Michelle Sullivan, Sylvain Grand’Maison, Laurent Lasalle and Laurent Maisonnave who have done a great job pulling this event together.

Register here.
PodCamp Montréal

Dead People on Facebook Infographic

September 2, 2010 · Posted in Social Network · 2 Comments 

I came across this infographic today on It cites Facebook as saying there will be 200,000 user deaths this year. This is significantly smaller than the 375,000 US-based deaths this year arrived at by Nathan Lustig of Entrustet.


Looking at the comments on this post, some people are clearly offended by this topic and the “flippant” tone of the infographic.

What do you think?

Avoiding Extinction in a Digital Dark Age

August 11, 2010 · Posted in Conference, Event · Comment 

avoiding extinctionI’m excited that my panel submission has been accepted to the voting stage of the SXSW Interactive festival, happening March 11 – 15, 2011 in Austin, Texas. More than 2,400 proposals have been submitted for consideration. Please vote for my session from August 9 to 27 to help it through to the next round of consideration. And, if you feel so inclined, please leave a comment on my session’s Panel Picker page, as this may encourage others unfamiliar with me or my work to vote for my proposal.

Avoiding Extinction in a Digital Dark Age evolved through speaking sessions that I’ve been doing over that the last year. It is particularly relevant to content creators and people who put so much of their work online. (Here’s Wikipedia about the possibility of a digital dark age.)

Avoiding Extinction in a Digital Dark Age

Here’s the session description:

Many think that the web is forever and our personal stories, work and files will live on stored on hard drives and online. Driven by low cost storage, easy distribution and social networks we’ve put our lives online at an amazing pace and converted analog to digital. But, are we inadvertently creating a digital dark age?

In the last 15-years, online photo and video sites, blogs, email and hard drives full of files have replaced the previous generation’s analog heirlooms.

Looking at an old family album from 1910, you’ll be able to view the photos today. Will your descendants be able to see your digital pictures 100 years from now?

The web is actually a fragile place where your digital life’s work and can disappear without warning. Stored data can suffer from digital obsolescence and become unusable.

To prevent the loss of historically significant records and collections, library and archival organizations have been working on digital preservation issues for years.

You may not be a person destined for the history books, but, to your family, friends, colleagues and descendants, your stories and work are just as important, and possibly even more relevant.

This session will look at what each of us can do today to preserve and pass on our digital legacy, how to determine what to save, what steps have happened at the institutional level and determine how they can be adapted for individuals.

If you are a prolific digital creator, this is a must attend session.

Five Questions Answered

  1. Why won’t my digital content be safe forever on the Internet?
  2. Isn’t the Internet Archive keeping everything?
  3. Why is the archive of files on my hard drive/CD/DVDs at risk?
  4. My data is insignificant. Why would anyone care about it in the future?
  5. How do I ensure that my important digital files survive me?

SXSW Voting

panel_pie_2011_0Here’s how the voting works:

  • 30% Community Voting (that’s YOU); 30% SXSW Staff Picks; 40% SXSW Advisory Board Picks
  • Voting runs from August 9 to 27, 2010
  • First 200 sessions are announced September 20, with more following on November 8

To vote:

  • Before Friday, August 27, 2010 go to a
  • click “Sign In” at the top right of the page
  • If you have never registered on before, click “create a new account” and fill out the simple form
  • Once you are logged into the PanelPicker, you can click here to get to my session, or navigate alphabetically to Avoiding Extinction in a Digital Age to vote.

Thank you for your support. See you at SXSW Interactive 2011!

Twitter Recommends Dead Friends

August 5, 2010 · Posted in Policies · 1 Comment 

lilyhillOn July 30th, Twitter announced that it was releasing a feature to recommend friends to follow right on the sidebar of the site when you log into It was only a matter of time before their Who to Follow algorithm turned up someone who had passed away.

My friend Dean Whitbread, @dfrw, alerted me this morning that upon logging in and seeing this feature for the very first time, he was disturbed to see his friend Ro, @lilyhill,  recommended as someone to follow. She had died unexpectedly of a stroke in May 2009. Two days later, Ro’s daughter used her mom’s cell phone to text a last message to the account to notify @lilyhill’s friends of her passing.

Facebook does it too

This same problem has been on Facebook since they rolled out their Suggested Friends feature in March 2008. And automated friend recommendations without the context of whether the person is alive or dead is the source of one of the most frequent complaints that I hear about Facebook.

However, in Facebook, users have the ability to report a user deceased and memorialize their account. A memorialized account removes some personal information, prevents new friend requests and still allows existing friends to post messages to the deceased’s Wall. It also removes the user’s account from the “Suggested Friends” algorithm so that your dearly departed does not appear there.

Twitter’s deceased policy

Twitter has no such ability to deal with the deceased’s account. In fact, Twitter has no policy regarding the death of a user at all. The closest they have is an inactive accounts policy which states “Accounts may be removed from the site due to prolonged inactivity,”  which they consider to be six-months. The policy then goes on to say they’re working on a way to release these accounts in bulk, but that they have no time line for when this might happen.

The account of the first person I knew on Twitter to pass away, @mochant, in December of 2007, is still there, well past the six-months to be considered an inactive account on Twitter.

The human side of the equation

Speaking to Dean Whitbread this morning about his friend @lilyhill,  he remarked “we felt like family.” After her death in May 2009, he wrote blog post about Ro as a way to acknowledge his grief and pay tribute to his friend whom he’d known online for 18- months.

A comment on that post left by @Otir, another of Ro’s online friends, talked about how she was grieving online.

“I am still feeling bereaved, probably because unlike if we were close blood family, I haven’t been actually able to pay my respects and attend her funeral or say goodbye in a proper way, I guess writing a tribute for a friend we met online is the proper way to do it.

I miss Ro a lot. She had become part of my daily life because we had often the same twitting hours and moments. Her absence is felt by this online silence that captures the exact essence of what death can be: silence.”

When we chatted this morning about seeing Ro in the Who to Follow box, Dean expressed how seeing her avatar there reminded him of the grief and loss he felt, and made him miss @lilyhill all over again. He summed up his feelings about the impact online friendships in his memorial blog post 15-months ago:

“It’s not just the convenience of messaging, adding a follower, the ubiquity of the internet – it is the meeting of minds, the touching of souls, the shared sensibilities, the humour, the wisdom, the kindness and the love. Don’t believe it when they tell you that internet friendships are not real.”

Sadly, online social networks using algorithms to build connections between users fail to take into consideration the real human emotion of what that means to people when those connections are lost.

Update #1: I was reminded that LinkedIn also has this practice of recommending people who have passed away.

Update #2: (via @SuzanneLong) Matt Haughey, (@mathowie) lamented, “Not you too Twitter? Facebook did this on every login. Developers: add status field of “deceased” in your apps.”

It drew this response from Doug Bowman (@stop), Twitter’s Creative Director, “@mathowie Sorry, Matt. We know this is an issue. We’re looking at solutions that preserve the profile yet keeps the user out of suggestions.”

Doug Bowman, himself, has had a run in with this issue when he commented last December, “LinkedIn keeps suggesting I add a dear friend who died last year. We (social media) still fail to handle this gracefully.”

Update #3: Here are more cases of people being recommended deceased people to follow: @GeoShore @croyle @apogeum @BigToys

Update #4: After sending a tweet to @stop about the issue and a request to speak with someone at Twitter, I received a reply that he had passed this post on to the support team dealing with the topic. Inroads…

Gray Questions Deceased Social Profiles

July 4, 2010 · Posted in Policies · Comment 

Silicon Valley tech blogger Louis Gray recently asked on his blog: Should Social Profiles Live on When People Die?

He’s questioning why it’s not easier to report that a Facebook user has passed away. Louis must have missed that day last October when Facebook blogged about the ability to memorialize accounts. I don’t blame him – it was easy to miss. Although Facebook had this feature in place and working long before this announcement (my sources say it came about after the Virinia Tech shootings in April 2007) they haven’t gone out of their way to promote it.

I have heard many complaints from people who’ve encountered exactly the scenario that Louis recounts, and likely you have too: the features that Facebook uses to encourage activity among its members will include deceased friends. Whether you’re asked to “reconnect with” someone by writing on their wall,  to help them “find new friends”, or to “keep in touch” by sending them a message, these prompts can be a distressing and emotional reminder of the death of a friend. These feelings are worsened because the automated reminders are tinged with guilt by putting the onus on the reader to do more, when clearly, there’s nothing more to be done.

When a Facebook account is memorialized, the deceased friend’s profile is no longer included in these prompts.

Louis Gray goes on to say:

Either way, the way we just leave things hanging in a position of suspended animation doesn’t work for me. If social networks are to celebrate births, celebrate life’s milestones and mark bad news as well, they should be ready for the final passage to whatever’s next.

It’s great that more people from the valley are starting to write about and question this incongruous aspect of social networks. It is a central part of how I feel about the state of online services policies (or lack thereof) and I felt compelled to comment on the post:

Actually, Facebook is one of the few social networks to have some semblance of a policy. Most other networks have no policy on death, though they might on “inactive” accounts. Email accounts have better policies around accessing a loved one’s data, but they’ll never hand over control of the account to the family.

I’ve been researching and speaking on this topic for 18 months. There is a disconnect between online services’ policies and the realities of life. Building online businesses is about using your resources toward growth and acquisition of new users to drive revenue. Having resources dedicated to termination of accounts and verification of a person’s alive/deceased status is not a top priority because it doesn’t produce revenue.

And let’s face it, most online services, especially free ones, are not known for providing individualized customer service. They just don’t have the staff. (Facebook has almost 500 million users and just 500 staff.)

Thanks for writing on this important issue. I’m glad to see more people giving it some thought. If you’re interested in knowing more, you can check out my blog on the topic:

How about you? Have you encountered a situation on Facebook, or elsewhere, that was inconsiderate about whether a friend was alive or deceased? How did it make you feel and did you do anything about it?

The Man Who Coined Digital Executor

May 28, 2010 · Posted in Digital Executor · 1 Comment 

About 18 months ago, just as I was making it known that I was researching digital legacy issues, several friends told me about Derek K. Miller and that I needed to have a conversation with him. Well today, that finally happened.

Photo: Derek K. Miller

Photo: Derek K. Miller

Derek lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and is as close to a digital native as a (soon-to-be) 40-year-old could possibly be. He told me stories of dialing into mainframes in the ‘83, and of being active on BBS and other early web-sharing activities. Derek has had a web site for more than 20 years and has been blogging for 10 years. He’s also a writer, editor, musician, photographer, podcaster, husband, father and tech guy. And he’s fighting stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer, which is one reason why he has given much thought and consideration to the idea of digital legacy over the last few years.

To best estimates, Derek is the first person on record to use the term “digital executor.”


Way back on April 30, 2008, Derek appeared on a CBC radio show called “Spark” hosted by Nora Young. (Listen to the 20 minute interview.) On it, he talked about having such a vast amount of content online and the need for people to have a digital executor to carry out your wishes after you’ve passed away. Back then, he discussed many of the same concepts and concerns that I’ve been exploring.

I read in the Spark blog comments that host Nora Young stated,

I can imagine a whole new category of ‘personal digital archivists’.

The timing of this comment is particularly interesting because it was in spring and summer 2008 that Bob Stewart founded VitalLock and Jeremy Toeman came up with the idea for  Legacy Locker.

It is also at that same time that I had a seminal discussion about this topic with a group of developers and techno-early-adopters about what happens to your online communities and digital footprint when you die. It was that discussion that inspired me to dig deeper, and which has led me to research, write and speak about digital legacy issues.

Fast forward two years, and after my presentation at webcom, a discussion sprang up on Twitter and Derek’s name was raised as being the person who coined the term “digital executor.” Within a short time, Derek and I had made arrangements to have Skype chat and it was a thrill to finally speak with him today . (I promise to blog more about that chat another time but you can read about some of it in Derek’s post.)

Dave or Derek?

Derek echoed what he had said 2 years previous, that Dave Winer (the creator of RSS and pioneer in blogging and CMS technology) was early out of the gate writing about the longevity of his digital content in March of 2007, one whole year before the Spark interview.

I realized that if I were to die now, my web presence might last a month or two, but probably not much longer. … If I want these things to last, I realized, I would have to invest to future-proof the content, as best as I can.

Despite Dave Winer’s advanced thinking on the preservation of content, he did not once use the term”digital executor.” So, unless someone can prove to me otherwise, I’m going to credit Derek K. Miller with being the first to use the term “digital executor.”

What a privilege it was to get Derek’s perspective on digital legacy issues. I look forward to our next conversation.

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