Can someone inherit a digital identity? At what point does an Instagram account become a business rather than a personal platform? We have already seen this happen with celebrities after they die; Paul Walker, Nipsey Hussle, and Michael Jackson all still have active Instagram accounts. The deceased rapper, Lil Peep, has faced significant controversy over his social media. As I write this, his most recent Instagram post is advertising new merchandise. While some argue that his family is aiming to continue his legacy, others argue that selling sweaters for $95 USD is simply an easy way to profit off Peep’s death.
But what if a celebrity passed away without the public knowing? Could someone run their accounts feigning that the person was still alive? Let’s take a look at Kylie Jenner – she makes approximately $1.2 million per sponsored Instagram post that she shares to her 197 million followers. In the two minutes it takes you to read this blog, she will have made around $633.53. If Kylie died, could someone inherit her account, followers, and digital personality? Between the power of digital image editing and the sheer number of selfies Kylie has taken, her account could hypothetically be run for years after her death. Kylie Jenner may be temporary, but @kyliejenner is immortal.
Who knows? Maybe this has been happening for years, and they are doing a good job of hiding it. Conspiracy? I think not.
For most of us, celebrity or not, our social media presence is an extension of who we are. While our biological body may have passed on, we continue to survive online. Planning your digital death is more than just a Black Mirror-esque fantasy – it is a current, existing issue. With 10,000 Facebook users dying every day, it is estimated that dead Facebook users could outnumber the living by 2069.
Planning your digital death is still relatively new, and possibilities are still being explored. Esther Earl, a sixteen-year-old girl battling thyroid cancer, shocked her loved ones when she tweeted six months after her death. The tweet read, “It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. Just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts.” While scheduling posts and updates is a cool way to live on (and freak out your friends), planning your digital legacy is usually much less glamourous. Some key tasks include compiling a list of your digital assets, specifying how you want your social media accounts to be handled, and telling a few trusted people where to find your passwords.
Most social media platforms allow for your account to be deactivated by a loved one after presenting a death certificate. This is essential, because there’s nothing worse than waking up to a reminder to wish your dead aunt Kathy a Happy Birthday. Facebook also has the feature to memorialize a user, freezing their account and protecting the user’s legacy. However, no amount of death certificates can give you access to a deceased person’s account. In 2012, a fifteen-year-old girl was hit by a subway train in Berlin. Her family sued Facebook for access her account to see if the girl was being cyberbullied. Facebook refused access, citing privacy legislation. After 6 years of legal battles, the family was finally granted access, but most people wouldn’t be so lucky. Moral of the story: leave a list of your passwords behind so that your loved ones can save on legal fees, and buy you flowers instead.