Culture

What Happens To Your Online Presence When You Die?

And who gets to decide?

Even though Facebook does provide these options for dealing with death, the fact is that most people’s families and friends don’t do anything to their loved-ones’ Facebook accounts. They live on in the cloud indefinitely. This can result in awkward situations like when a dead person shows up on a recommended friend list. There have even been stories of people ‘Liking’ things beyond the grave.

Google has its own way of dealing with death. In April 2013, Google launched the euphemistically titled “Inactive Account Manager”, a service that lets you “control what happens to your account when you stop using Google.” In other words, when you’re dead. With this tool, you are required to select a period of time for Google to wait before doing anything (from three months to a year). One month before this limit is reached, if you haven’t signed in to any of your Google accounts, they will send you an email or text message asking if you’re alive. If that final month passes without word, Google notifies your trustees — you can select ten — who are informed that your account is going to be closed. You can either choose for your trustees to ‘inherit’ your data, or for it to be cleared from the cloud completely.

Despite its clinical-sounding name, Google’s Inactive Account Manager is more flexible about death than Twitter. Twitter will never give anyone, not even family, access to a dead person’s account, meaning that there is no option to leave a final message on the deceased’s behalf, unless they have their phone or password. The only option is to deactivate the account.

To do this, Twitter needs the deceased person’s username, a copy of their death certificate, a copy of a government-issued ID and a signed statement with a list of information, including your relationship to the deceased, your contact information, an obituary, and most disturbingly, “a brief description of the details that evidence this account belongs to the deceased, if the name on the account does not match the name on death certificate”. And all of this has to be sent via fax or paper mail.

These strict conditions mean that most dead Twitter accounts just sit passively on the cloud. It also means that your last few tweets can kind of serve as your last words, or a digital epitaph. For example, American poet Maya Angleou, who passed away in May this year, left the message: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of good.” By comparison, former playboy model Cassandra Lynn Hensley’s final tweet was: “I just got into this new tanning bed and it’s spraying some kind of liquid on my boobs!! #weird”.

Up next: Posthumous posts, data protection and your digital soul

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