What Happens To Our Online Lives When We Die?

A year and a half ago, I attended the very first Eat.Drink.Tweet Conference in Penticton. They keynote was delivered by Rick Bakas, who specializes in creating social media strategy for wine labels. In his keynote, Rick talked about the concept of cultural curation. “We are leaving,” he said, “our grandchildren a rich legacy of thoughts, photos and conversation.” You can read more about that keynote here.

It’s true. Maybe in the past, you’d be able to sit down with your loved ones and get them to tell you stories of their lives, or maybe you’d have a journal or a diary. But the kind of day-to-day, moment-to-moment recording of our thoughts and actions that happens today is a phenomenon never before experienced in our culture. I watch my friends’ babies grow up, from sonogram photo, through to birth, first teeth, walking, and on to school, all through Facebook and blogs and YouTube.

But what happens when someone dies? Just over two years ago, we lost Babz Chula, a local actor and mentor and all around amazing person, whom I loved very dearly. Her personal Facebook page is still up. No one has shut down her account, and, I have to confess, I like going there some times. I still sometimes leave messages on her wall, and read messages others have left there. It’s comforting.

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And she’s not alone. It’s estimated that up to 3.2% of active Facebook profiles belong to people who have died. Facebook even has a policy for the profiles of the deceased.

For answers to some of these questions, I turned to Christine Frietchen, Editor-in-chief of ConsumerSearch.com. But first, I told her my Babz story.

CF: I can relate to your story. The reason I wanted to investigate this topic to begin with was because I also lost a friend quite suddenly about six months ago. His page, too, became a little memorial, but then I noticed that some people did not even realize he had passed – and had left “hey!!! What’s up? Long time no see” messages for him. They didn’t realize that all of the “hey, I sure miss you” messages were actually memorials.

RC: What are the rules for Facebook when someone dies? Should their account be deleted?

 CF: Facebook has a clear death policy: with proper documentation, including a death certificate, you can have a relative’s profile set to a “memorial” state. That means Facebook will remove contact details and other personal info, and remove the profile from search. No new users can “friend” the page, but existing friends can continue to view and post on the page. Upon request from an authorized relative, the profile can be removed.

What Facebook won’t do is give anyone access to the person’s password, so no one can access the private communications (such as direct messages) that might be part of the profile.

RC: Overall, do you think that leaving that information out there is a positive thing? What could be the negative ramifications?

I can see it from both sides, and it certainly depends on the situation. For a while, I imagine it would be a nice thing to continue to see  a loved one’s profile in your friend list. But how might your feelings change after a year? Two years? Ten years? What about a sad situation such as a suicide and the mixed feelings that can bring? It’s a very individual decision, and I can see it possibly being a contentious one among family members. From a security standpoint, it is certainly a good idea to have a loved one’s profile memorialized so it will not appear in search and so that contact details and personal info is removed.

RC: Is there any way for me to preserve my Facebook account, for example, in the case of my being hit by a bus? It could be a really wonderful thing for my son to have access to, for example.

Of course, but the future is uncertain. You can request that loved ones memorialize your profile, after which time your posts and photos will continue to be available to your existing friends. However, future changes to Facebook could change the way those pages look. If you want to give loved ones total access, keep updated log-in info with your other estate information. Some states are considering legislation (and the state of Oklahoma has already passed such legislation) to make your digital information a part of your estate, so your successors will be able to legally access your profile.

There are plenty of privacy issues to consider; you may not want anyone to be able to access your private messages after you’re gone; or relatives may discover something they wish they had not. In the end, it’s a personal decision that should be considered along with the other components of your final wishes.

RC: Thanks, Christine!

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

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