Online… and Immortal

5th May 2017

‘You can’t take it with you…’ no longer applies just to money and possessions. Now there’s an ever increasing digital legacy to be managed too. Jennifer Lipman investigates…

‘See your memories...’ Every day, Facebook invites us to look back: at the parties, at the weddings, at the banal status updates. The ‘On this Day’ feature, introduced in 2015, seems harmless. You might cringe at your outfit, but nothing worse, surely?

In general, that might be so. But what if you’re recently bereaved, and the person you’ve lost is regularly popping up in your memories? It’s just one example of how digital platforms are not designed with death in mind, argues Stacey Pitsillides, a design lecturer at Greenwich University, who has just completed her PhD on ‘digital death’. “These technologies are still designed for life, and death is an add-on.”

Until recently, we’d leave behind purely physical assets – property, clothing, jewellery – ideally with a will, to ensure that the right person got the right thing. Any ‘data’ we had created – letters, photographs, diaries – was part of that heritage. Today, of course, we live online. We pay our bills there; we have accounts with online retailers; we are on Twitter and YouTube and Instagram.

“Pictures, memories, thoughts are digital: there are no more photo-albums on the shelf,” points out Barbara Travagli from RipCemetery, a digital platform offering ‘virtual tombs’. “There are no more paper pen-friends, no more postcards; instead there are Instagram posts, emails and chats.”

This move to virtual assets throws up a number of questions around what we pass on, and how. For one, we may not be able to leave people our possessions. Even if we own the copyright of an original photograph, we may only be leasing the right to view it on a particular website. Without a hard copy or an initial file, it may not be ours to bequeath.

More broadly, the issue is that when we die, our online life doesn’t die with us. So how can we plan for a good digital death?

As with our offline life, it’s partly about good financial planning: including, for example, ensuring our executors know to trace assets held in cyberspace, from PayPal to web-only bank accounts or loyalty cards with points equating to cash. “You need to make sure that whoever is left behind knows what they are looking for,” says Gary Rycroft, a solicitor who sits on the Law Society’s Wills and Equity Committee. He wouldn’t advise writing down passwords, but stresses that someone, somewhere, should know to find these things when you die.

Dr Christina Welch, who runs Winchester University’s MA in Death, Religion and Culture, points out that solicitors can hold passwords for us, and also highlights the various websites where you can pay to store this information. “People should be aware of this aspect of their life, when preparing their will,” she emphasises.

Equally, the internet has made us all publishers – whether inadvertently, on Facebook, or intentionally, on a blog – and that raises intellectual property issues, too. “When you’re making a will, you need to think about who is going to curate your social media and who is going to be responsible for your published work,” notes Rycroft.

A good digital death therefore involves thinking ahead of time about our emotional assets – not least, our social media profiles – and considering what will happen to them. As Travagli points out, “someone who knows our access data can continue posting in our place” if we haven’t taken the necessary precautions.

While Silicon Valley is catching up with the digital death challenge, it remains largely a wild west out there. Every site handles death differently, so even if your executors can demonstrate the authority to deal with your estate, their ability to do so will depend on rules of the corporation concerned.

On Facebook, for example, you can submit a ‘legacy contact’ to memorialise your page or close it down. There’s also an option to allow them to download a copy of the things you’ve shared. Google takes a similar approach, allowing you to nominate an ‘Account Manager’; alternatively they’ll work with immediate family to close the account. “In certain circumstances we may provide content from a deceased user’s account,” they say (though never passwords), and they emphasise that requests will only be met “after a careful review”.

Instagram requires a death certificate in order for someone else to gain control of a page and memorialise it, while Twitter will ‘work with a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate... to have an account deactivated’, although they won’t pass on login details.

In several high-profile court cases, bereaved families have fought for access to accounts. In one, a father challenged Facebook for refusing to remove pictures of his daughter with her murderer (eventually he succeeded in having the images taken down). As Rycroft says, when you register, “you’re signing up to their terms and conditions and entering into a contract”. Often, there’s very little wriggle room.

Pitsillides thinks that technology giants – alongside lawyers and policymakers – should be doing more to ease the process of handling someone’s digital footprint. As she points out, Google’s service “is hidden behind two clicks and the name doesn’t automatically sound like it’s got anything to do with death”. Digital death, she sighs, still isn’t a priority.

But, as more people with online presences die, perhaps it will become one. Rycroft anticipates that one day we’ll have ‘social media executors’ empowered to curate or close our social media life. He suggests these might be different to our offline executors: a teenager might like their Instagram account handled by a friend rather than by their parents.

Meanwhile, beyond the thorny question of who gets our digital assets, lies another question: can digital life help us to remember the dead? Plenty of people think so. There are now myriad ‘memorial’ sites, aimed at helping people grieve in cyberspace, from RipCemetery, where you can ‘leave’ photographs or flowers at a virtual grave, to SafeBeyond, created by a bereaved husband to ensure his wife would always be in their son’s life. The site enables the living to receive messages from the dead (not without notice, you’ll be glad to hear; users still have to log in to a digital vault to gain access).

To an extent, these are just modern incarnations of old-fashioned mourning traditions. “We are more able to resolve grief when we have a continuing bond and connection with deceased loved ones, rather than a total severing of bonds,” argues SafeBeyond’s Dov Sugarman. Being able to visit someone ‘online’ could prove to be as cathartic as laying flowers on a grave.

On the other hand, if we constantly see the dead’s digital footprint, might it feel like they are haunting us? Dr Welch suggests it comes down to temperament. “Some people find it very comforting to be able to continue bonds after someone has passed on, others find it disturbing.” But she warns that issues can arise, such as if a public Facebook page attracts abusive messages, for example.

Whether or not we organise our online life before death, most of us will leave an enormous amount for our inheritors to deal with. More generally, how does it affect mourners to have such vast volumes of content about someone at their fingertips?

“When you have to sort through 30,000 tweets, it’s a different scale to a flat’s-worth of possessions,” says Pitsillides. “We’re leaving behind huge amounts of stuff for someone to organise. Really meaningful messages about loved ones, babies, and relationships – intermingled with posts about train delays. And there’s no way of searching it for meaningful content.”

While all this can provide points of inspiration, it can be, as she says, “terribly confronting when something you don’t expect comes into your Facebook”. As with account inheritance, she thinks tech companies need to find ways “to organise the data so it becomes less of a burden and more meaningful”. Ultimately, she says, that has to go hand-in-hand with individuals taking responsibility for “what we put into the digital world, how we collect it, how we curate it, how we archive it”.

With more than two thirds of us failing even to make a will – let alone plan for our digital death – we have some way to go. But we can’t let it slide; as Sugarman says, “we need to make sure that our life story is told as we want it to be”. A good digital death is at the heart of that.

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