Virtually everyone has some sort of presence on social media, be it Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Tumblr. These pages can often contain deeply personal data or information – which is why more and more people are starting to raise the question “What will happen to my social media profiles when I die?”
One of the main worries is that digital vandals (‘trolls’) may break into inactive social media profiles and cause mischief or even emotional harm to the deceased’s family members. Facebook is already putting systems in place to tackle this problem – the family can provide proof of death to Facebook and turn their loved one’s page into a private memorial. (They also have the option to close the account altogether.) Potential trolls will not be able to find the memorial page through the site’s search function, leaving the page a safe space for friends and family to share memories. It could almost be said to be an online gravestone, with the same levels of protection that a real one is granted.
This function was put in place after the Virginia Tech shooting in America when families and friends of the victims organized an online campaign to persuade Facebook not to delete the pages of the people they had lost. “It might seem silly to post messages to people who will never respond,” said the campaign organizer John Woods, “but these pages are what’s left of their voices, and the rest of their voices have been stolen from us.”
People’s desire to have their voices still echo on after death is what drives so much of the discussion around this subject. After all, a person’s social media accounts could hold everything from family photographs to notes on unpublished novels to things that have considerable monetary value in ‘real life’, such as domain names. So what, exactly, can you do to prevent your voice being silenced or used for unsavory purposes?
Well, you can specify in your will what you would like to happen to your accounts. Many lawyers now have experience in the appropriate use of social media, and can help you plan out what you would like to do. This may mean appointing someone to take on the responsibility of deleting or freezing your accounts. As for things that have monetary value, it can be arranged for them to go to the next of kin.
But the whole area is still poorly regulated. Families who wished to keep the accounts of deceased loved ones active have found themselves unable to, forced to opt instead for the ‘memorial’ option which they did not want. There isn’t a law which says companies must release requested information to families after death, and most of them put the deceased’s privacy above all else. There’s a good reason for that – people’s emails, blogs, and other profiles may contain information that was never intended for even loved ones to be able to view. The internet is rife with cautionary tales of parents who have accessed the social media accounts of children who had passed, only to end up feeling as if they had just snooped into their child’s diary. Though it can cause pain to the families, companies generally err on the side of caution by keeping personal information under lock and key – the rights of the consumer always come first.
The world’s first legal case about this issue took place in 2004 when the family of a Marine who died in action in Afghanistan sued Yahoo to gain access to his emails and ultimately won. But they were disappointed with the results, as the emails released were not what they had hoped for and in fact were mostly spam. The case illustrates very well the difficulties of navigating social media and privacy issues in a rapidly changing world.
Ultimately, perhaps the best thing to do is to discuss the issues with the closest people to you, as well as your lawyers and will-writers. Let them know exactly what you want to happen in the event of your death and get everything in writing – everything from passwords to lists of the online assets that you own. It’s a difficult subject and (like all speculation about what will happen after you die) it can be hard to talk about. But it’s definitely worth doing.