A little article about digital death I wrote for The Conversation

Facebook’s accidental ‘death’ of users reminds us to plan for digital death

Tama Leaver, Curtin University

ZuckThe accidental “death” of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and millions of other Facebook users is a timely reminder of what happens to our online content once we do pass away.

Earlier this month, Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile displayed a banner which read: “We hope the people who love Mark will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life.” Similar banners populated profiles across the social network.

After a few hours of users finding family members, friends and themselves(!) unexpectedly declared dead, Facebook realised its widespread error. It resurrected those effected, and shelved the offending posthumous pronouncements.

For many of the 1.8-billion users of the popular social media platform, it was a powerful reminder that Facebook is an increasingly vast digital graveyard.

It’s also a reminder for all social media users to consider how they want their profiles, presences and photos managed after they pass away.

The legal uncertainty of digital assets

Your material goods are usually dealt with by an executor after you pass away.

But what about your digital assets – media profiles, photos, videos, messages and other media? Most national laws do not specifically address digital material.

As most social networks and online platforms are headquartered in the US, they tend to have “terms of use” which fiercely protect the rights of individual users, even after they have died.

Requests to access the accounts of deceased loved ones, even by their executors, are routinely denied on privacy grounds.

While most social networks, including Facebook, explicitly state you cannot let another person know or log in with your password, for a time leaving a list of your passwords for your executor seemed the only easy way to allow someone to clean up and curate your digital presence after death.

Five years ago, as the question of death on social media started to gain interest, this legal uncertainty led to an explosion of startups and services that offered solutions from storing passwords for loved ones, to leaving messages and material to be sent posthumously.

But as with so many startups, many of these services have stagnated or disappeared altogether.

Dealing with death


Drowning in social media. mkhmarketing/Flickr

Public tussles with grieving parents and loved ones over access to deceased accounts have led most big social media platforms to develop their own processes for dealing with digital death.

Facebook now allows users to designate a “legacy contact” who, after your death, can change certain elements of a memorialised account. This includes managing new friend requests, changing profile pictures and pinning a notification post about your death.

But neither a legacy contact, nor anyone else, can delete older material from your profile. That remains visible forever to whoever could see it before you die.

The only other option is to leave specific instructions for your legacy contact to delete your profile in its entirety.

Instagram, owned by Facebook, allows family members to request deletion or (by default) locks the account into a memorialised state. This respects existing privacy settings and prevents anyone logging into that account or changing it in the future.

Twitter will allow verified family members to request the deletion of a deceased person’s account. It will never allow anyone to access it posthumously.

LinkedIn is very similar to Twitter and also allows family members to request the deletion of an account.

Google’s approach to death is decidedly more complicated, with most posthumous options being managed by the not very well known Google Inactive Account Manager.

This tool allows a Google user assign the data from specific Google tools (such as Gmail, YouTube and Google Photos) to either be deleted or sent to a specific contact person after a specified period of “inactivity”.

The minimum period of inactivity that a user can assign is three months, with a warning one month before the specified actions take place.

But as anyone who has ever managed an estate would know, three months is an absurdly long time to wait to access important information, including essential documents that might be stored in Gmail or Google Drive.

If, like most people, the user did not have the Inactive Account Manager turned on, Google requires a court order issued in the United States before it will consider any other requests for data or deletion of a deceased person’s account.

Planning for your digital death

The advice (above) is for just a few of the more popular social media platforms. There are many more online places where people will have accounts and profiles that may also need to be dealt with after a person’s death.

Currently, the laws in Australia and globally have not kept pace with the rapid digitisation of assets, media and identities.

Just as it’s very difficult to legally pass on a Kindle library or iTunes music collection, the question of what happens to digital assets on social media is unclear to most people.

As platforms make tools available, it is important to take note and activate these where they meet (even partially) user needs.

Equally, wills and estates should have specific instructions about how digital material – photos, videos, messages, posts and memories – should ideally be managed.

With any luck the law will catch up by the time these wills get read.

The Conversation

Tama Leaver, Associate Professor in Internet Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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At last week’s Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) conference at Swinburne University in Melbourne I gave a new paper by myself and Tim Highfield entitled ‘Mapping the Ends of Identity on Instagram’. The slides, abstract, and audio recording of the talk are below:

While many studies explore the way that individuals represent themselves online, a less studied but equally important question is the way that individuals who cannot represent themselves are portrayed. This paper outlines an investigation into some of those individuals, exploring the ends of identity – birth and death – and the way the very young and deceased are portrayed via the popular mobile photo sharing app and platform Instagram. In order to explore visual representations of birth and death on Instagram, photos with four specific tags were tracked: #birth, #ultrasound, #funeral and #RIP. The data gathered included quantitative and qualitative material. On the quantitative front, metadata was aggregated about each photo posted for three months using the four target tags. This includes metadata such as the date taken, place taken, number of likes, number of comments, what tags were used, and what descriptions were given to the photographs. The quantitative data gives also gives an overall picture of the frequency and volume of the tags used. To give a more detailed understanding of the photos themselves, on one day of each month tracked, all of the photographs on Instagram using the four tags were downloaded and coded, giving a much clearer representative sampling of exactly how each tag is used, the sort of photos shared, and allowed a level of filtering. For example, the #ultrasound hashtag includes a range of images, not just prenatal ultrasounds, including both current images (taken and shared at that moment), historical images, collages, and even ultrasound humour (for example, prenatal ultrasound images with including a photoshopped inclusion of a cash, or a cigarette, joking about the what the future might hold). This paper will outline the methods developed for tracking Instagram photos via tags, it will then present a quantitative overview of the uses and frequency of the four hashtags tracked, give a qualitative overview of the #ultrasound and #RIP tags, and conclude with some general extrapolations about the way that birth and death are visually represented online in the era of mobile media.

And the audio recording of the talk is available on Soundcloud for those who are willing to brave the mediocre quality and variable volume (because I can’t talk without pacing about, it seems!).

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I’ve got a new article in the most recent issue of the M/C Journal entitled ‘The Social Media Contradiction: Data Mining and Digital Death’. Here’s the abstract:

Many social media tools and services are free to use. This fact often leads users to the mistaken presumption that the associated data generated whilst utilising these tools and services is without value. Users often focus on the social and presumed ephemeral nature of communication – imagining something that happens but then has no further record or value, akin to a telephone call – while corporations behind these tools tend to focus on the media side, the lasting value of these traces which can be combined, mined and analysed for new insight and revenue generation. This paper seeks to explore this social media contradiction in two ways. Firstly, a cursory examination of Google and Facebook will demonstrate how data mining and analysis are core practices for these corporate giants, central to their functioning, development and expansion. Yet the public rhetoric of these companies is not about the exchange of personal information for services, but rather the more utopian notions of organising the world’s information, or bringing everyone together through sharing.

The second section of this paper examines some of the core ramifications of death in terms of social media, asking what happens when a user suddenly exists only as recorded media fragments, at least in digital terms. Death, at first glance, renders users (or post-users) without agency or, implicitly, value to companies which data-mine ongoing social practices. Yet the emergence of digital legacy management highlights the value of the data generated using social media, a value which persists even after death. The question of a digital estate thus illustrates the cumulative value of social media as media, even on an individual level. The ways Facebook and Google approach digital death are examined, demonstrating policies which enshrine the agency and rights of living users, but become far less coherent posthumously. Finally, along with digital legacy management, I will examine the potential for posthumous digital legacies which may, in some macabre ways, actually reanimate some aspects of a deceased user’s presence, such as the Lives On service which touts the slogan “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”. Cumulatively, mapping digital legacy management by large online corporations, and the affordances of more focussed services dealing with digital death, illustrates the value of data generated by social media users, and the continued importance of the data even beyond the grave.

Read the rest at the M/C Journal (open access).

Incidentally, yes, one of the points in this article is already out of date as last month Google quietly launched their Inactive Account Manager. While far from perfect, this Inactive Account manager gives Google users more control over what happens to their Google stored assets after they pass away (well, actually, after they don’t log in for a specified period of time). It is, however, far from perfect.

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