Death in the age of social media

Deciding what happens to your data

Graphic by Aldo Rios

It used to be that when preparing for your death, you would write a will to ensure your estate is handled how you want when you pass. Now, end-of-life preparation includes planning what will happen to your social media accounts.

Earlier this year, Facebook rolled out the legacy feature, which enables users to select an individual from their friends list who can manage their account once they pass. This legacy contact is given the ability to change the deceased’s profile and cover photo, accept friend requests, and post one final status message on their wall once their account has been memorialized.

The legacy contact, however, is not able to log in to the deceased’s account, delete friends, read or send messages, or change past posts.

An account on Facebook may be memorialized once a family member or friend submits a request to Facebook, with either a link to an obituary or other documentation. Once an account has been memorialized, they no longer appear in searches, and their name is preceded with “Remembering.”

Alternatively, Facebook users may also use the legacy feature to request that their account is deleted once their death has been reported to Facebook. Family members or friends may also request that the Facebook account of a deceased loved one is deleted instead of memorialized.

It is common for friends and family to use Facebook accounts of the deceased as a place to share memories, acknowledge special dates, and to assist in the grieving process.

Google also offers a way for users to decide what happens to their accounts after death, by either assigning an inactive account manager, or choosing to have their account deleted.

How the death of a user is handled varies between platforms. What is common is that no social media platform will release passwords or give access to an account as per their privacy policies.

For Twitter users, an immediate family member or the estate may submit a copy of a death certificate, and proof of relation, to deactivate an account.

Friends or family of a deceased Instagram user may submit a request with a link to an obituary or news article to have an account memorialized. Immediate family members or an estate may request for an account to be deleted.

Some online services, such as Legacy Box, are also available which allow users to select an heir to their digital assets once they pass.

We are soon to enter a time when an entire generation has grown up with a social media presence for their entire lives – perhaps beginning with baby photos their parents posted on Facebook, and now entering their pre-teens with their own social media presence.

Social media began as a way to simply connect and stay in touch with friends and family. However, as time goes on, entire lives are being documented and shared from beginning to end. Digital property is becoming a real concern when it comes to how it is dealt with after those we care about pass. Having to consider how data is managed after death is certainly a characteristic which separates this generation from the last.