After their son's suicide, one Wisconsin couple was desperate for answers. They tried to log into his e-mail and Facebook accounts but failed. The grieving parents finally got a court order to access these online records, arguing that just as their son's death gave them ownership of his tangible assets, so it also gave them rights to his digital contributions.
In courtrooms around the country, the online legacies of the departed are becoming the subject of painful battles for mourning families. People have long made plans for delivery of their possessions after they die, including family heirlooms, photograph albums, old letters and other memorabilia. Many people design this disbursement to help those left behind deal with their demise. Our possessions are part of us and traditionally are the main tangible part that remains after our death.
In the modern world, however, another echo of us exists that will outlast our physical existence: our writings and records in the digital realm. Our digital “selves” are composites of mementos such as images on Shutterfly or Flickr, books on e-readers, and our musings and correspondence on e-mail, blogs and social-media accounts. This full array of data deposits, legal experts say, is your digital legacy.
The increasing importance of our online identities adds a new layer to grief and mourning. Growing evidence suggests a person's contributions to the cloud can be dear to mourners and, because they are easily accessible, potentially lasting and interactive, can help them cope with the loss. Yet many of us have given little thought to what will happen to our online accounts after we die. “People don't realize that they need to make plans for these assets,” says Georgetown University lawyer Naomi Cahn. “The first step is getting people to think about this.”
Sites of Solace
Many people want to maintain their online privacy. In addition, preserving the Facebook page of a dead person could be considered a touch macabre. Yet as with your old physical photos and letters, creations by you in the digital world can be a comfort to those you leave behind. For an article now in press, information scientist Jed Brubaker of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues interviewed 16 Facebook users about their experiences after the loss of a friend or family member. They found that all the respondents were emotionally attached to the digital trappings of the deceased. “People tend to go back to these pages on anniversaries, birthdays and holidays” as a way to keep a part of their loved one alive, says cyber anthropologist Michaelanne Dye of the University of Georgia.
Mourners may even set up new online venues such as memorial Web sites or Facebook pages. These sites also can serve as effective emotional outlets. In her doctoral dissertation at Antioch University, psychologist Jordan C. Fearon asked 68 founders of Facebook memorial groups about their experiences with grieving through social media. All but one of the founders said they would recommend creating a Facebook group to anyone who had recently experienced a loss. Like holding a wake or sitting shivah, a virtual memorial provides the bereaved with social support, a sense of connection with both the deceased and the living, and meaningful activity. “It was very beneficial to my grieving process to physically see via my computer that my friends were feeling the exact same emotion,” wrote one of the individuals Fearon surveyed. In addition, nearly 60 percent of the respondents said that online grieving was more helpful and valuable than traditional grief rituals. Memorial sites, after all, can be made accessible to a broad array of individuals and can last for as long as participants need support.
Taking Care of Business
Although you have no say in how others remember you, the existence of memorial Web sites underscores the importance of deciding what to do with your digital persona when you are no longer around. If you leave it to chance, you may have little control. The legal system has yet to establish a coherent system governing the inheritance of digital assets. Only six states have laws that allow next-of-kin access to those resources. The lack of legislation means that the ownership of your profile can revert back to the company who owns that site after your death unless you specify otherwise, Dye says. (Forthcoming legislation may soon prevent anyone except a court-appointed person or a designee of the deceased to gain access to that individual's online information.)
Dye says she is working on inserting a clause into her will spelling out exactly what she wants done with her digital life after her death. “My online profiles are a part of who I am,” she confesses. Whether or not you adjust your will, Cahn recommends creating a locked paper document or secure database that has passwords and security questions for your e-mail, banking and other online accounts so friends and family can access or deactivate your profiles, notify e-mail correspondents of your passing, and take care of any financial concerns.
For any accounts you have on Google, you now have a more automated option. In April, Google added a free service called Inactive Account Manager (nicknamed “Google Death”) that allows you to decide what happens to your Google-operated accounts after you die.
One option is to delete these accounts. Another is to have Google allow a designated person to view them if you do not log on for a specified period, ranging from three months to a year. Before Google authorizes this transfer, however, the company will send reminders to alternative e-mail addresses and cell phones in one last attempt to get in touch. “Inactive Account Manager allows people to be proactive with their digital assets,” says Nadja Blagojevic, a manager of privacy and security at Google. “It's important for the people you leave behind.”
You cannot similarly decide the fate of your Facebook profile. In this case, once you die, the choice lands on your friends and family. They can leave the page as is, open to friend requests, Facebook advertisements and photo tags. If someone can provide an obituary or death notice, Facebook will memorialize the page, meaning that no new friends will be added and the person's name will not appear in news feeds. Loved ones can also request that the deceased person's page be deleted.
In most cases, your heirs and close friends will not be in a hurry to wipe out all digital traces of you. And although you could try to instruct Google, among others, to erase you from the Internet, making the digital “you” invisible is probably impractical, and even if it were possible, doing so may deepen the pain of those you care about. It makes more sense, then, to construct a path so that those who love you can follow at least some of your online trail and gain access to the digital deposits they might need or want.
This article was originally published with the title "Managing Your Digital Afterlife" in SA Mind 24, 4, 22-23 (September 2013)
The Technology of Grief: Social Networking Sites as a Modern Death Ritual. Jordan C. Fearon. Ph.D. dissertation for Antioch University, 2011. http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Fearon%20Jordan%20Ciel.pdf?antioch1307539596
Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning. J. R. Brubaker, G. R. Hayes and P. Dourish in the Information Society, Vol. 29, No. 3, pages 152–163; May/June 2013.
CARRIE ARNOLD is a Virginia-based science writer and author of Decoding Anorexia: How Breakthroughs in Science Offer Hope for Eating Disorders (Routledge, 2012).