Recently, I spoke with a Jessica Hopper at NBC Rock Center who was investigating digital legacy. Her story features the Stassen’s, a family who is seeking some answers behind their son’s suicide and are turning to Facebook to find them.
The family has obtained a court order to gain access to their son’s Facebook account on grounds that they are heirs to his estate, and as such, they are entitled to all of his assets, including digital digital, and the contents of his Facebook account. Aside from the publicly posted items, they are curious about what private information might reveal about his death.
His parents speak candidly about it in this video:
In the supporting article, Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University, commented, “What happens if a 21-year-old had a safe deposit box at the bank, the answer is the safe deposit box belongs to his estate and whoever controls the estate gets to open the box.”
“When somebody dies, the person who is responsible for taking care of the individual’s asset is supposed to be complying with what the individual wanted and protecting the individual,” said Naomi Cahn, a George Washington University law professor. “Because so many people have not thought about this, we don’t know what the person actually wanted…we can all imagine what’s in internet accounts. There may certainly be cases where the person who died would not have wanted anyone to get anywhere near the person’s account.”
Where do you stand on this? Do you believe that the heirs to the estate should have full access to digital accounts? Or do you believe that the online services have a responsibility to protect their users’ privacy, even after death?
Nebraska 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.
- BBC News – Living online after death faces Nebraska legal battle
- Mashable - Facebook After Death: What Should the Law Say?
- Omaha.com - Facebook dead serious about Nebraska bill
- Facebook - Remembering Janna Moore Morin
- WGRZ – Social Media Users Can Create “Online Executor” In Will (Indicates that New York recently introduced similar legislation this month.)
- My friends at The Digital Beyond and Civics.com have teamed up to offer DigitalEstateResource.com with resources and advice for incorporating digital assets into the estate planning process. One section tracks the developments in state law.
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.
Facebook announced a new feature yesterday that allows you to download all of your photos, videos, wall posts, notes, messages, events and friends. This data accessibility feature is a major step for Facebook, which has always been a “walled garden” – a place to put information, but very difficult to extract it again.
The ability to retrieve content from your Facebook account will be tremendously helpful to those who are struggling with the online accounts of a departed loved one. Provided you know the email address and password to the deceased’s account, you can archive their content in case it is needed or wanted in the future.
This feature is also useful for those who wish to deactivate their loved ones’ Facebook account after death as it offers a way to safeguard the data before it is removed from the web. (Be advised, though, that Facebook retains all users’ data on their servers after account deactivation, even if the account is no longer publicly accessible on the web. There is currently no way to permanently delete an account from Facebook.)
Here is a video explaining the steps. The roll out of this new feature to its 500 million users will be incremental (I haven’t yet received it).
I came across this infographic today on AllFacebook.com. 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 AllFacebook.com post, some people are clearly offended by this topic and the “flippant” tone of the infographic.
What do you think?
On 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 Twitter.com. 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.
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 #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…
“Your Post-Mortem Facebook Life” ran on NBC Bay Area on July 28, 2010. It addresses growth of Facebook memorial accounts noting that a search for “R.I.P.” yields more than 23,000 pages. The news item highlights the stories of Eric Toscano, who died at 18 years-old. It goes on to say that the memorial on Facebook wasn’t possible a few years ago, but now just seems natural. The NBC piece also speaks to Julie Kramer, who wrote about Facebook Ghosts at the Huffington Post. Julie’s experience with Facebook memorials was around her friend, TV news reporter Darcy Pohland.
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: http://DeathAndDigitalLegacy.com
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?