Online legacy: What happens to our social media accounts when we die? New tech creates a digital legacy by releasing messages after death

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James speaking at the Click Summit in Portugal
James speaking at the Click Summit in Portugal

With so much of our lives online, what happens when we die? This is the question James Norris posed back in 2012 when he set up DeadSocial to legally protect the dead’s digital legacy and even allow them to leave messages for loved ones beyond the grave.

“The catalyst was watching the Bob Monkhouse advert about prostate cancer,” said James. “It starts with him saying ‘I’m back’. It gets your attention and was really powerful. And I thought I could use something created for a TV campaign, and do the same thing with our modern technology.”

James explains DeadSocial, now known as MyWishes, was created for people who want to be able to say a final goodbye message to their loved ones.

“Users are able to create messages that are only shown after they have died. Once a message is created the user assigns a 'Trusted Contact’. The Trusted Contact cannot view or edit any messages that are created but they can administer them after the user dies. My Trusted Contact is my brother,” he said. “The sentimental value that we place on our digital footprint is increasing each year. When a good friend of mine died I immediately turned to his Facebook profile to view photos of him and of us together.

“I have very few physical pictures of him and do not have a photo album with printed photos of him in it. My friend's parents decided not to delete his Facebook account. If they had deleted it I would not have been able to view the photos and videos that he uploaded. I would also no longer be able to view the messages shared between us,” he said.

James points out that individual users don’t own their online social media profiles, and need to use features such as Facebook Legacy for someone else to manage it after they die.

As well as running MyWishes James also works with hospices as part of the Digital Legacy Association to help educate people about how to manage their online presence after they die. “I want to try to empower them to decide what they want to happen. It’s about working out which platforms they use and what needs to happen to each of them. What you can and cannot do within their terms of service. So it’s all about campaigning and raising awareness to make sure that people do make plans,” he said.

“Some people will have more sentimental reasons for their digital legacy, and others more financial, deciding where PayPal credit or cryptocurrencies go for example.”

Originally from an arts and technology background, James said that “the only jobs I have had did not exist ten years before, I did not know I would be working in this space at all.”