Recently I’ve come to find myself dealing with what happens to our digital presence after death. For the degree of integration these services have built into our lives, little attention is paid to what happens afterward and worse yet, for an issue these companies must deal with daily, these services seem content with a reactive and scattershot approach.
After someone has died, most of the attention of their surviving family members and friends is dedicated to a) their grief, b) spreading the news and c) the urgent scheduling and planning needs of a funeral. The need to communicate and share information makes social media a key tool, while the urgency and grief make the struggles of gaining access or control of the deceased’s accounts more taxing. Juggling these competing interests, the importance of social channels against their bureaucracy and process, I have ranked the social channels from most difficult to least.
Snapchat: While truly, few people are going to be concerned about the status of someone’s Snapchat account, Snap Inc. has virtually no process or means for deactivating, memorializing or deleting the account of a deceased user. Snap does not publish the timeframe in which inactive accounts are deleted automatically, but it is into this process that these accounts would fall.
Twitter: Though Twitter has dealt publicly with these kinds of issues, in the hacking of the recently passed journalist David Carr, their process remains difficult. The Twitter Help Center lists the following process:
In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorized to act on behalf of the estate, or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.
Use this form to request the removal of a deceased user’s account. After you submit your request, we will email you with instructions for providing more details, including information about the deceased, a copy of your ID, and a copy of the deceased’s death certificate. This is a necessary step to prevent false and/or unauthorized reports. Be assured that this information will remain confidential and will be deleted once we’ve reviewed it.
Requiring a death certificate will delay this process until a minimum of one week following the death. Twitter also has no option for a person to plan ahead and bequeath their account or access to a person.
LinkedIn: The LinkedIn Help Center has this process available:
Unfortunately, there may be a time when you come across the profile of a colleague, classmate, or loved one who has passed away. If this happens, we can close that person’s account and remove their profile on your behalf.
We’ll need you to gather:
- The member’s name
- The URL to their LinkedIn profile
- Your relationship to them
- Member’s email address
- Date they passed away
- Link to obituary
- Company they most recently worked at
To start this process, please answer some questions about the person who has passed away by filling out this form.
After you fill out this form, it will be automatically sent to us for review and we’ll be in touch.
Again, requiring the listing of the obituary puts a time delay on the possibility to addressing this account, but it does spread the responsibility of dealing with the account to anyone close enough to know these details.
Instagram: At present, Instagram offers very limited options to anyone addressing the accounts of a deceased loved one. Currently, accounts can be memorialized or removed entirely. Memorializing removes the accounts from Suggested lists or from random search. It also protects the account from unauthorized access, flagging any activity as fraudulent. You can find the details of the current options here, but I suspect that Instagram, under the ownership of Facebook, will move toward Facebook’s more robust pre-planning model.
Gmail: While Gmail is not social media, it is equally or more important for our digital lives, holding passwords and access to the social and financial trails of our digital lives. Gmail has a particularly thorough, if slow, tool that allows any Gmail user to plan ahead.
Called the Google Inactive Accounts Manager, this tool allows anyone with a Google account of any kind to designate access after a period of inactivity to another user. Access can be divided, giving User A access to Gmail and Search History and User B access to Blogger, for example. When set up, the account holder sets both the phone number and email address of their designee and the period of time their account must be inactive before it is shared.
The one downside to this program: the minimum period of inactivity is three months, making it less useful for resolving financial issues quickly after a death. However, the fact that Google has structured it with fairly substantial flexibility in mind is great. Google Inactive Account Manager also will email me every three months to remind you that you have set up this process and confirm that you are still happy with your choices.
Facebook: In my experience, Facebook has the very best processes in place, for both planning and as a survivor.
For planning, Facebook now allows you to set a Legacy Contact, essentially a Facebook executor. This person is empowered to manage your account once Facebook has received notice of your death. From Facebook, a Legacy Contact has the following capabilities:
A legacy contact is someone you choose to look after your account if it’s memorialized. Once your account is memorialized, your legacy contact will have the option to do things like:
- Write a pinned post for your profile (ex: to share a final message on your behalf or provide information about a memorial service)
- Respond to new friend requests (ex: old friends or family members who weren’t yet on Facebook)
- Update your profile picture and cover photoYou also have the option to allow your legacy contact to download a copy of what you’ve shared on Facebook, and we may add additional capabilities for legacy contacts in the future.
Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Memorialized accounts have the following key features:
- The word Remembering will be shown next to the person’s name on their profile
- Depending on the privacy settings of the account, friends can share memories on the memorialized Timeline
- Content the person shared (ex: photos, posts) stays on Facebook and is visible to the audience it was shared with
- Memorialized profiles don’t appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for People You May Know, ads or birthday reminders
- No one can log into a memorialized account
- Memorialized accounts that don’t have a legacy contact can’t be changed
- Pages with a sole admin whose account was memorialized will be removed from Facebook if we receive a valid request
Typically, a memorialization request requires a death certificate or obituary, however, if you are a linked and verified family member on Facebook, this requirement can be bypassed.
Overall, with only Gmail and Facebook allowing any process for planning, the key takeaway here should be that we must take it upon ourselves to plan for this inevitable future. Sharing your passwords with trusted friends or family members and keeping a centralized record of your “digital will” can ease the future process for your loved ones.