Your Digital Legacy: Life After Death?
By Meghan Wolff. March 29, 2012, 11:00 AM CDT
Social media is the first entity to offer life after death and have some tangible proof to back it up. From battles over who controls an individual’s social media accounts after they die to a selection of applications and websites that grant the user a few posthumous last words or even allow them to regularly update their social media after their demise, our digital estates are creating some interesting problems and equally intriguing solutions.
Back in 2005, it took a two-year legal battle before Facebook granted access to the mother of a 22 year old who died in a motorcycle accident. After her son’s death, Karen Williams found her son’s password and emailed Facebook administrators asking them to maintain her son’s account so she could look through his photos and posts. Within two hours, Facebook changed the account password and blocked her access.
Under current policy, when Facebook learns of a death, the individual’s account is put in a memorialized state: the profile and wall or timeline is left up, and privacy is restricted to friends only, who can still post comments and photos. If the deceased grants prior consent or law mandates it, Facebook also provides the estate with a download of the account data. Facebook does honor a request from a close relative to have the page removed.
In 2010, Oklahoma became the first state to pass a law giving the executor of an estate the right to access the deceased’s account, preserve the information, and terminate the account. State bar associations in Nebraska and Oregon are working on legislation similar to that passed in Oklahoma, though Facebook is purported to be working closely with these groups after being taken by surprise by the Oklahoma bill. One potential future hitch in this type of legislation is the claim of social media sites that the content posted to their websites belongs to the provider, not the user.
Now, in 2012, James Norris, founder of the new website DeadSocial, has a different solution to the problem of what happens to your social media accounts when you die: you can keep using them. Norris launched DeadSocial, a site that allows you to posthumously update your social media accounts, as an open alpha at the recent SXSW festival in Austin, TX. Creating an account with DeadSocial allows users to create a calendar of timed messages and posts that will be released across their social networking sphere after they’ve died. Multiple messages can be saved and then sent over time, creating a continuous posthumous presence on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or any combination of the three. If, in the future, these social mediums aren’t relevant, the content will remain available on the user’s DeadSocial account.
Norris came up with idea for DeadSocial after British comedian Bob Monkhouse appeared in an ad about prostate cancer several years after he died from the disease. Norris, however, isn’t the first person to capitalize on the possibility of your last words arriving after your demise. If I Die is a Facebook application that allows you to record a final message that will be posted to your page after your death. Willook, an Israel-based company that specializes in time capsule services and products, created the app. To use If I Die, you simply install the application on Facebook, record your message, and choose three trustees who will confirm your death before the video is released.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge If I Die faced when marketing their app was people’s reluctance to face the possibility of death around any corner. In response, they created their bizarre and incredibly creepy initial marketing campaign, which used location-based services such as foursquare to track down thousands of individuals and deliver the personal message that death could catch them anywhere, completely unawares. The stunt garnered the site hours of free media coverage, including a mention in Adam Ostrow’s TEDTalk about social media presence after death, and a purported 800 percent increase in the app’s usage.
Unlike If I Die, DeadSocial breaks new ground with the ability to have messages and posts delivered across a span of time, potentially even years after a user’s death. It raises the question, however, is a site like DeadSocial really for the consolation of friends and family, a way to let those who were important to us know that they’ll always be special and close to our hearts, no matter what happens? Or is it for the user’s own peace of mind, a way to guarantee that even if we’re gone, we’re not forgotten, no matter what the wishes of those still around? Perhaps a site like this would do well to encourage some collaboration between users and their friends and families to make sure that it really does serve the needs and wishes of those left behind, rather than simply extend a user’s digital life after death for their own gratification.
If you’re interested in a less macabre way to leave a digital legacy for your friends and family, 1000Memories is an online archive for photos, captions, and stories. 1000Memories allows unlimited downloads of user content and promises to never delete any user content (unless requested), so that your photos, stories, and memories are accessible to your current friends and family as well as future generations. The online archive is committed to making its database as permanent as possible, with no account expiration, storage of multiple copies of your data, and a partnership with Internet Archive, the official digital archive of the Library of Congress.
No matter what you choose to do with your digital legacy, the overarching lesson of these services is that it’s something we need to start thinking about. Not just because, as If I Die would like you to remember, death might be around any corner, but because with the volume of content posted to social media sites every day, we are creating an enormous digital estate that precedent can’t tell us how to entitle.
About Meghan Wolff
Meghan is a teacher, improviser, and reluctant Minnesotan. In the world of technology, she loves space, education, the environment, and people doing absurd things. In the world of people, she loves improv, books, alternative sports, and people doing absurd things.