Column: What happens (online) when we die?

Column: What happens (online) when we die?

A little over four years ago, my friend Tommy was in a car with a drunk driver and two other kids when it skidded out of a curvy road and rammed a pole about a mile away from my house. The other guys suffered only minor injuries, but the impact occurred on the back right door of the ’99 Nissan Sentra, where Tommy was sitting. He experienced irreparable head trauma and died in the hospital a few hours later. He was 17.

The way my hometown of Simsbury reacted was pretty interesting. Usually, we get the rap of being the basis for Eagleton in “Parks and Recreation” (i.e., rich and self-interested and anti-Amy Poehler), but everybody rallied around Tommy’s family to let them know they were loved and considered. It’s sad that tragedy is the catalyst for community outreach, but the results of sympathy, empathy and friendship were kind of beautiful.

How we express condolences and remember our loved ones is a little different now. Like everything else, it’s on the Internet, de-privatized for the world to see. People don’t necessarily have to go to the tombstone anymore. They can leave messages on the deceased’s social media profiles instead or in addition to. There are, to this day, Facebook statuses recalling memories with Tommy, with Tommy’s profile “tagged,” but Tommy is not there to receive the notification.

Something tells me Mark Zuckerburg never considered a social media afterlife, his own online cemetery. Quite frankly, it makes me a little squeamish. I always envisioned death as something more privately mourned.

Nevertheless, Facebook has its own “Memorial Mode” that allows relatives to take control of the deceased’s profile. Upon proof of death by someone who is in a clear position to act as an agent, Facebook will take down sensitive contact information like phone numbers and past statuses, and solely allow Facebook friends to post to their wall. Additionally, the site will add the word “Remembering” next to the name at the head of the profile.

However, nothing the deceased didn’t want shared while living is available to whoever gains access to their Facebook. There have been a handful of court cases with Facebook regarding teens who committed suicide and parents that sought more information, but were not allowed to obtain it under Facebook’s staunch privacy laws.

Facebook isn’t the only site seeking to help relatives (somewhat) connect with their loved ones posthumously. Gmail and Hotmail will allow families to order a disk of the deceased’s messages upon showing a death certificate and proof of power of attorney. Photography website Flickr is similar to Facebook in that an account will be forfeited to the family of the dead person, but anything considered private while the person was alive will not translate into accessible content afterward. And different sites such as Legacy Locker store an array of passwords to be utilized come death; each one has similar authority as the aforementioned sites.

Where it gets weirder is browsing The Digital Beyond, a site aggregating other webpages “designed to help you plan for your digital death and afterlife.” For instance, “Afternote” gives people the opportunity to “record your final wishes for your funeral and digital legacy,” essentially a digital will.

Most people are probably typing their wills on computers nowadays as it is, but what contributes to the eeriness of these places is how specialized they are, whereas sites like Facebook and Gmail are primarily utilities for the living with posthumous capacities. Above all, we have now reached a point in the digital age where we acknowledge and show legitimate concern for our material and digital lives alike.

The Internet is changing the way we shape our legacies. Our grandchildren will not refer to yearbooks, photo albums or home videos, but rather our Facebooks, Twitters and Instagrams. This is but another installment in our ongoing engulfment by the screen, another nail in the coffin to our immaterial surrender.

Protect Digital Assets After Your Death

Protect Digital Assets After Your Death

Let’s face it: Your e-mail account, Facebook page and online photo albums are likely to outlive you. Deciding how to manage your digital legacy just may be your trickiest estate-planning task.

As people increasingly live—and die—online, family members and estate executors are left to sift through e-mail messages, Facebook status updates, blog posts, tweets and other digital remains that may have significant financial or personal value. And even if they have all the required passwords, many heirs will find they have no clear authority to access or manage the online accounts of the deceased. A confusing and sometimes contradictory snarl of online user agreements and state and federal laws can restrict Internet users’ ability to transfer their online accounts to loved ones after their death and prevent families from retrieving information stored in the digital realm.

Despite the devilish details, it’s essential to include online accounts in the estate-planning process. Failure to plan ahead may prevent loved ones from recovering family photos or videos or settling your final bills. It also could leave your estate vulnerable to post-mortem identity theft, if fraudsters decide to apply for credit cards in your name while nobody’s watching your accounts.

What’s more, a library of digital music or an Internet domain name that you own may have financial value that’s significant to your estate. The domain name HotelsGuide.com, for example, recently sold for $60,000, according to domain-name marketplace Sedo. “We shouldn’t dismiss our digital assets as insignificant or unimportant,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of Your Digital Afterlife (New Riders, $25). “The things that may seem ephemeral to us are very valuable to heirs once we’re gone.”

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The value of these assets can go far beyond the financial worth in the wake of a loved one’s death. After her brother died in 2011, Melinda Miller quickly had his Facebook account “memorialized,” meaning friends can still post messages on his page, but no one can log in to the account. “That first six months, I didn’t know if my parents were going to recover” from the loss, says Miller, 41, an elementary school principal in Springfield, Mo. But as friends have continued to post photos, songs and holiday greetings on her brother’s page, “it’s very comforting to the family to see the messages continue,” she says. “It’s like a memory wall.”

The first step for seniors starting to navigate this new world of digital estate planning is to recognize the obstacles they face. Each online service provider has its own terms of service—the legal mumbo-jumbo you click through when you open your account—and those terms often say that you can’t transfer your account or hand off your password to anyone else. Those restrictions pose a challenge for heirs who might want to access your e-mail account, for example, to retrieve bills and other documents.

Providers differ on how they handle the accounts of deceased users, but some are starting to help users plan their digital afterlife. The Yahoo terms of service, for example, say that “any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death,” and accounts may be deleted if a death certificate is submitted. Google in April introduced a new feature allowing users to specify that after a certain period of inactivity their account data should be deleted or passed along to specific individuals. At Facebook, relatives may be able to request the contents of the account—a lengthy process involving a court order—or ask that the page be deleted.

Federal laws present another hurdle. If you use your late mother’s password to log on to her account, you may violate not only the provider’s terms of service but also the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which governs certain unauthorized access to computers. And a federal privacy law, the Stored Communications Act, can limit providers’ ability to share deceased users’ account contents with relatives.

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A handful of states, meanwhile, have passed laws attempting to clarify executors’ power to manage a deceased person’s digital assets. But given the variations in the state laws, federal laws and technology companies’ terms of service, some legal experts say such legislation has done little to remedy the confusion. “It is a very unsettled area” of law, says Gerry Beyer, law professor at Texas Tech University. The Uniform Law Commission, which helps standardize state laws across the U.S. by drafting model legislation, currently has a committee working on the issue.

Some accounts that you access online don’t pose much of an estate-planning challenge. Because financial institutions have clear procedures for handling an account holder’s death, it’s relatively straightforward for executors to arrange for the transfer of assets to beneficiaries, estate planners say.

Protecting Your Digital Afterlife

Although many other online accounts remain in a legal fog, seniors who take a few simple steps now can greatly increase the odds that their online afterlife will be handled according to their wishes.

First, take inventory of all your online accounts, including e-mail, social networks, blogging sites, photo-sharing sites, frequent-flier accounts, shopping sites such as Amazon.com, credit card accounts, and online bill-payment accounts, such as those established with utilities. For each account, list log-in and password information as well as answers to “secret” questions.

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The security of such a list is a critical question. One solution: Use a password-management system such as LastPass.com or 1Password (www.agilebits.com). These services will encrypt your log-in and password information and keep it stored on your own computer. You’ll have a master password to unlock the data, so it’s easy to retrieve and update password information. Another option: Save the list in a password-protected document on your computer. Don’t put any password information in your will, which becomes a public document.

When you’ve completed your inventory, write down where you’ve stored the information and the master password needed to access it. Put that information in your safe deposit box or in your attorney’s vault. Seniors creating a power of attorney document should also include specific language authorizing their agents to deal with their digital assets, Beyer says.

Next, consider signing a statement, which can be drafted by an estate-planning lawyer, authorizing the companies that hold your online information to disclose that information to your executor or other representative, says James Lamm, estate-planning attorney at Gray Plant Mooty, in Minneapolis. The authorization may be included in your will. That way, your executor can request a copy of the contents of your online accounts, rather than trying to access the account directly—and possibly running afoul of the terms of service or federal law, Lamm says. “That should work, but I can’t guarantee it,” he says. “That’s as good as we can get under current law.”

Seniors may be able to avoid sticky legal questions by downloading their online account information to a home computer. Some tech companies are making this process easier. Facebook, for example, allows users to get a copy of all of their correspondence with friends, photos and other account content in a single download. A service called Backupify (www.backupify.com) will also help download content from Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and other personal accounts.

A cottage industry of online data-management companies has begun selling services that claim to transfer your digital assets to your beneficiaries. One such service is offered by SecureSafe, launched in 2009 by Zurich-based online storage company DSwiss. It has already signed up more than 300,000 individuals and is adding roughly 10,000 new customers a week, says spokesman Andreas Jacob. But legal experts say such services don’t resolve the potential conflicts with online providers’ terms of service or federal laws. SecureSafe’s terms of service say that users must comply with the laws of their own country, Jacob says.

Even when family members have shared all their passwords with each other, managing online accounts can be difficult. Karen Marcus, 39, of Richmond, Va., had all of her husband’s passwords when he died in 2010, but she didn’t have all of the log-in IDs he used for online bill payments. She tried to convert the online bills back to paper statements, which wasn’t an easy process. Her electricity was turned off, she says, after the power company was slow to send her the paper bill that she had requested. But when dealing with such a loss, she says, “you don’t know what day it is, what time it is. And you want to make things as simple, as tactile, as possible.”

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How do we protect our digital legacy after death?

How do we protect our digital legacy after death?

In the old days we stored our treasured memories in photo albums and paper diaries.

Physical things which could be passed on in a will.

But now, in our online lives our memories – our thoughts, feelings and images – are scattered to the four winds of the internet, and stored on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

But who actually owns them?

And how do we ensure that the people we want to inherit them, our loved ones, actually do?

There are no norms or standard practice among online providers for how digital assets are passed on to heirs

Louise Palmer knows only too well how difficult it can be.

Her 19-year-old daughter Becky loved sharing her life on Facebook.

When she fell terminally ill with a brain tumour, and lost speech and movement, Louise would log in with Becky to help her stay in touch with her friends.

Becky died in 2010 but Louise continued to access her account to feel close to her daughter.

“It was really important,” she told me.

“When you’ve lost a child, and losing a child is the worst loss there is.

“You become very, very fearful that other people are going to forget them.

“So to be able to go on there and read not only what people have put on her wall, but private messages that people had sent as well.

“It was reassuring me that she wasn’t going to be forgotten.”

Memorialised account

But then Facebook locked or ‘memorialised’ Becky’s account.

Louise wrote to them explaining the tragic circumstances of Becky’s death and expressing her desire to read the private messages on her daughter’s page and to keep it tidy.

Memorialised Facebook page
Becky’s Facebook account was memorialised

She received this reply: “Hi Louise, We are very sorry to hear about your loss. Per our policy for deceased users, we have memorialized this account.

“This sets the account’s privacy so that only already confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in Search.

“The Wall will remain, so friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.

“Unfortunately, for privacy reasons, we cannot make changes to the profile or provide login information for the account.

“We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause. Please let me know if you have any further questions. Thanks for contacting Facebook.”

Lack of awareness

Louise then wrote to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but did not receive a reply.

New YouGov research commissioned by the law firm Mishcon de Reya reveals an alarming lack of knowledge of who owns our online material.

Around one in four simply have no idea, while one in three believe it belongs to Facebook after death.

Who do you think owns content?

YouGov asked 2,185 adults: In the event that a Facebook user passes away, who do you think, by default, owns their Facebook content?

36% said Facebook

20% said next-of-kin

17% said no-one

27% said they didn’t know

So who does own our online content?

Mark Keenan, a partner at Mishcon de Reya says: ‘It’s a legal minefield, it’s the new frontier.

“People are just not reading the terms and conditions, and what we are seeing is a real increase in disputes between competing family members and the service providers.”

There are no norms or standard practice among online providers for how digital assets are passed on to heirs.

Clear instructions

Last year the Law Society warned people to leave clear instructions about what should happen to their social media, computer games and other online accounts after their death.

It stressed that having a list of online accounts, such as email, banking, investments and social networking sites will make it easier for family members to piece together a loved one’s digital legacy, and provide the best chance for the wishes of the deceased to be fulfilled.

It is not only sentimental material that can be lost.

Digital assets can also include things with a real monetary value such as music, films, email accounts, computer game characters, domain names, air miles, reward points, PayPal and Bitcoin accounts.

And it is not just small change.

A virtual space station has been sold for $330,000 on a game called Project Entropia – though whether that kind of asset could be passed on would depend on the game’s terms and conditions.

Now that social networking and the internet are well past their infancy, it is surely prudent for us all to consider how to pass on our digital legacy

Gary Rycroft, a member of the Law Society Wills and Equity Committee, said people should not assume family members know where to look online and to make details of their digital life absolutely clear.

“If you have a Twitter account, your family may want it deactivated and – if you have left clear instructions – it will be easier for your executors to have it closed.

“If you have an online bank account, your executors will be able to close it down and claim the money on behalf of your estate.

“This is preferable to leaving a list of passwords or PINs as an executor accessing your account with these details could be committing a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

“It is enough to leave a list of online accounts and ensure this is kept current.”

Passwords remain secret

Not that many of us tell anyone what our passwords are.

The YouGov research found that 52% of us said that no-one, including friends and family, would be able to access our online accounts should anything happen to us.

Becky Palmer
Becky was very close to her mother

In February Facebook offered customers in the US the option of deleting an account when they die, or appointing a friend or relative to take control of some parts of it.

But that doesn’t apply here.

In a statement they told me: “When a person passes away, their account can become a memorial to their life.

“The Profile no longer appears in public spaces, so that grieving friends and family can continue to view the comments, photos and posts of their loved ones.”

But that wouldn’t include private messages on Becky Palmer’s site, or allow Louise to manage it.

With many cherished memories of her daughter locked up online, Louise Palmer relies increasingly on a few home videos for comfort.

She understands that there are reasons for Facebook’s privacy policy following a death – some people may not want anyone picking over details of their private life online.

But she says that there were no secrets between her and her daughter.

They shared everything in life.

She told me: “I’m her mum and this was her Facebook page, and its contents I felt were my legacy.

“Her online stuff should now be mine to be able to access.”

Digital memories

At their inception social networking sites were largely the province of the computer savvy young.

A deluge of personal material flowed online, and no one was thinking about what might happen to it after death.

Now that social networking and the internet are well past their infancy, it is surely prudent for us all to consider how to pass on our digital, as well as our earthly, legacy.

The latest challenge in design? Create a better way to die

The latest challenge in design? Create a better way to die

It’s fair to say most of us don’t have a very good relationship with death.

At least not in the West, where one in three Americans say they would ask doctors to do anything possible to keep them alive, according to a Nov. 2013 Pew poll, and only one in three UK adults have prepared a will.

To fight off death, we’ve founded research groups like Google-backed biotech company Calico, whose mission is to halt the aging process, and the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize, dedicated to finding scientific cures for old age. All are signs of what US anthropologist Ernest Becker identified in 1973 as a civilization-wide “denial of death,” in which the sum of human activity is simply an expression of our inability to accept the inevitable.This is the beginning of a cultural shift toward death.

But we have to get over it. Humans should apply their creativity and innovative power to redesigning the inevitable, not futilely inching away from it. Quantified Self products like the new heart sensor-equipped Apple Watch are designed to help you hack your own body into a more efficient, longer-lasting, biological machine, but a world of widespread longevity would be a mess.

Current human society is designed around a 100-year-or-less lifespan. Saving enough money to sustain just a few decades of old age is already hard. Who has the savings to retire forever?

The more useful and meaningful innovation would be not how to live longer, but how to die better.

How we think about death

We struggle to plan for death because the assumptions we hold about dying are formed by what we see around us. It should be telling thatthe death scene voted “most iconic” in a March 2015 poll of UK movie audiences is neither real, nor human: it’s the death of Mustafa in Disney’s The Lion King.Characters die, but the story always continues.

Pop culture has left us deeply misinformed. Popular television shows like US hospital drama ER have been found to portray a grossly unrealistic CPR resuscitation success rate of 75%, while in real emergency rooms, the survival rate is less than 10%. And even if, once in a while, we may tear up over a hero or heroine’s onscreen death, the cameras always pass quickly on to the next scene—characters die, but the story always continues.

Now, not only do we want to live forever, we suspect it’s possible. And the few deaths that we see are romantically misconstrued as noble, painless, fleeting, until we come to our own and realize—too late—that dying is not that simple.

We could be dying better

The most common way to die is the hospitalized death by natural causes, an involuntary, drug-smoothed transition usually overseen by health professionals who have lost the long struggle for the patient’s life. About 50% of people in the UK (and two-thirds of the elderly) die in hospitals, even though, according to the BBC, only 7% of British people say they want to die there. Most would rather die at home.

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Uji counts time according to your heartbeats, and stops when you stop. (Being and Dying)

In the Medieval tradition, “how to die well” was first prescribed by the Ars Moriendi (Art of Dying)an illustrated guide to preparing the mind, body and soul for death (and the first book to be printed on moveable type, after the Bible). Then, as now, planning a good death meant caring for the whole needs of the terminally ill person: not just medical, but social, psychological, emotional, religious and spiritual.

People who die a good death often do so because they are ready to die: if still mentally alert and lucid, they can prepare by resolving lingering conflicts, seeking counsel and eventually coming to terms with fate. Importantly, those who are prepared to die are often surrounded by loved ones, and arrange to receive care that maintains their self-respect.Seven out of 10 Americans think physician-assisted euthanasia should be available.

To die with dignity, some choose to go before they lose control of their bodies or minds. Right-to-die supporters have already succeeded in legalizing voluntary euthanasia in places like Oregon in the United States, the Netherlands and Belgium. And popular support for death by choice is spreading; seven out of 10 Americans surveyed in a June 2014 Gallup poll think that physician-assisted euthanasia should be available for terminally ill people. In the UK, assisted dying is expected to be legal within two years.

The way we die is going to change

This is the beginning of a cultural shift toward death, a grassroots movement to fill in the gap between traditional, spiritual care and institutional, medical treatment, by creating new ways to die well.People who die a good death do so because they are ready to die.

Death doulas or death midwives, scattered through cities across the United States and Europe, have started offering practical and emotionalsupport services around dying, often to perfectly healthy people. Alongside them is a growing network of Death Cafés around the world: groups of people who meet online and then gather in person to discuss dying over chocolate cake and cappuccino.

Breaking the stigma on public expressions of mourning and loss, in July 2013, National Public Radio journalist Scott Simon live-tweeted his own mother’s death. Outside of traditional institutions, many people are talking, connecting and passing on wisdom about how to approach our demise. These initiatives represent the DIY side of redesigning death.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, driven by advances in computing, US tech company eterni.me claims it will soon offer algorithmic facsimiles of deceased loved ones, which live on in cloud servers. Google’s Inactive Account Manager, deletes or shares deceased users’ data according to instructions left behind, while Facebook app My Memorials creates digital obituaries, guest books, and photo albums. All fall into a range of digital death services now emerging in the field of thanatosensitive design, from Thanatos, the Greek god for death.

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Flutter helps adolescents grieve with sound, instead of words. (Being and Dying)

My own design research studio Being and Dying builds products and experiences that re-integrate death into life. One project we are working on, codenamed Flutter, was designed to help adolescents grieve the loss of a loved one by expressing themselves with sound, instead of words, after our research showed that adolescents— though highly connected through their devices—tend to self-isolate during difficult periods of loss.These initiatives represent the DIY side of redesigning death.

We’ve also built a wall clock to remind owners of the simple fact of being alive, right now. The arms of the clock gently move with your heartbeat, using heart rate sensors similar to those found in the Apple Watch. It only stops when your heart does. The clock, called Uji, embodies a Zen philosophy of time: that we should understand that we are always in time, not before or after it.

Nothing can save us. But with design we can help bring death into the everyday, and help people think more about how they want to conclude their lives. By taking careful stock of changing Western attitudes toward death, and by relinquishing the taboos on discussing death, creators of emergent products and services are helping us accept our own mortality. What we need is a new art of dying.

Follow Ivor on Twitter at @beinganddying. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com