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 yesterday’s outstanding Controlling Data: Somebody Think of the Children symposium I presented the first version of my new paper “Intimate Surveillance: Normalizing Parental Monitoring and Mediation of Infants Online.” Here’s the abstract:

Parents are increasingly sharing information about infants online in various forms and capacities. In order to more meaningfully understand the way parents decide what to share about young people, and the way those decisions are being shaped, this paper focuses on two overlapping areas: parental monitoring of babies and infants through the example of wearable technologies; and parental mediation through the example of the public sharing practices of celebrity and influencer parents. The paper begins by contextualizing these parental practices within the literature on surveillance, with particular attention to online surveillance and the increasing importance of affect. It then gives a brief overview of work on pregnancy mediation, monitoring on social media, and via pregnancy apps, which is the obvious precursor to examining parental sharing and monitoring practices regarding babies and infants. The examples of parental monitoring and parental mediation will then build on the idea of “intimate surveillance” which entails close and seemingly invasive monitoring by parents. Parental monitoring and mediation contribute to the normalization of intimate surveillance to the extent that surveillance is (re)situated as a necessary culture of care. The choice to not survey infants is thus positioned, worryingly, as a failure of parenting.

An mp3 recording of the audio is available, and the slides are below:

The full version of this paper is currently under review, but if you’re interested in reading the draft, just email me.

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Re-OrientationI’m pleased to note that my chapter ‘Born Digital? Presence, Privacy, and Intimate Surveillance’ is out now in the Re-Orientation: Trans-lingual, Trans-cultural, Trans-media. Studies in narrative, language, identity, and knowledge collection edited by John Hartley and Weiguo Qu for Fudan University Press. The collection is the outcome of the fantastic  Culture+8: New Times, New Zones symposium in 2014 which explored cultural synergies between different countries and locations in the +8 timezone which include Perth where we hosted the event, and, of course, China.

My chapter is a key part of my Ends of Identity project; here I start to think about ‘intimate surveillance’ which is where parents and loved ones digitally document and survey their offspring, from sharing ultrasound photos to tracking newborn feeding and eating patterns. Intimate surveillance is a deliberately contradictory term: something done with the best of intentions but with possibly quite problematic outcomes.  Here’s the full abstract:

The moment of birth was once the instant where parents and others first saw their child in the world, but with the advent of various imaging technologies, most notably the ultrasound, the first photos often precede birth (Lupton, 2013). In the past several decades, the question is no longer just when the first images are produced, but who should see them, via which, if any, communication platforms? Should sonograms (the ultrasound photos) be used to announce the impending arrival of a new person in the world? Moreover, while that question is ostensibly quite benign, it does usher in an era where parents and loved ones are, for the first years of life, the ones deciding what, if any, social media presence young people have before they’re in a position to start contributing to those decisions.

This chapter addresses this comparatively new online terrain, postulating the provocative term intimate surveillance, which deliberately turns surveillance on its head, begging the question whether sharing affectionately, and with the best of intentions, can or should be understood as a form of surveillance. Firstly, this chapter will examine the idea of co-creating online identities, touching on some of the standard ways of thinking about identity online, and then starting to look at how these approaches do and do not explicitly address the creation of identity for others, especially parents creating online identities for their kids. I will then review some ideas about surveillance and counter-surveillance with a view to situating these creative parental acts in terms of the kids and others being created. Finally, this chapter will explore several examples of parental monitoring, capturing and sharing of data and media about their children, using various mobile apps, contextualising these activities not with a moral finger-waving, but by surfacing specific questions and literacies which parents may need to develop in order to use these tools mindfully, and ensure decisions made about their children’s’ online presences are purposeful decisions.

The chapter can be read here.

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Beginnings

The ‘beginnings’ issue of the M/C Journal, edited by Bjorn Nansen (University of Melbourne) and me, has just been published. We’re really pleased with how this issue has turned out: a number of articles engage with the beginnings of life — from pregnancy apps to social media microcelebrity infants to infant media use – but there are also some fantastically creative engagements, from the beginnings of spreadsheets in terms of both history and practice through to the rhetoric beginnings of new technologies such as smart contact lenses. As with all issues of M/C, the content is free and open access.

Here’s the issue contents:

  • EDITORIAL: Beginnings – Bjorn Nansen, Tama Leaver

[Image: 4/366: Beginning by Magic Madzik CC BY]

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As I’ve been neglecting the blog, a quick update on new publications so far this year:

Amongst several recent talks, I gave a presentation for Curtin Alumni at a public event in July. The talk was recorded and is now available on YouTube or embedded below. It gives a fairly decent overview of my Ends of Identity project for anyone interested.

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Yesterday, as part of the fantastic ‘Presence, Privacy and Pseudonymity ‘panel at Internet Research 15: Boundaries and Intersections in Daegu, South Korea, I presented an expanded and revised version of the paper first gave in Dunedin earlier this year. The paper has been retitled slightly as ‘Captured at Birth? Presence, Privacy and Intimate Surveillance’; the slides are available now:

If you’re interested, Axel Bruns did a great liveblog summary of the paper, and for the truly dedicated there is an mp3 audio copy of the talk. The paper itself is in the process of being written up and should be in full chapter form in a month or so; if you’d like to look over a full draft once it’s written up, just let me know.

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Lego_BeginningBjorn Nansen and I are editing an issue of M/C A Journal of Media and Culture on the (deliberately and we hope, provocatively) broad topic of ‘Beginnings’. The Call for Papers has just been released, and is reproduced below for your convenience:

‘beginnings’

The digital spaces we encounter are increasingly stabilised and structured, organised through regulatory and commercial regimes, and populated by content and users whose lives began already networked in digital forms of production, distribution and consumption. This issue of M/C Journal seeks to explore the beginnings of these familiar and well-established, as well as emerging, contexts of digital cultures. By focussing on the beginnings, of life, of platforms, of technological encounters, of existence on social media, and so on, this issue aims to bring together scholarship around the infant and initial moments of technology use, and the processes, relations and forces that shape and are shaped by these beginnings. As digital culture becomes increasingly banal and thus less visible, studying digital beginnings may help to illuminate the varied forms of meaning, mediation, and materiality at play in configuring the familiar. Exploring beginnings may also serve to highlight paths not taken, as well as potential alternatives produced at such interstices.

Questions of beginnings feature within research traditions and theories of technology adoption, domestication and development, and so can be understood in reference to individuals and users, but also apply to the beginnings of social groups and movements, or the birth of applications, platforms, technologies or enterprises. Studying beginnings, therefore, raises questions about digital histories, trajectories and temporalities, and is open to empirical, methodological or theoretical enquiries.

By inviting contributions interested in exploring digital beginnings in this issue of M/C, possible topics to be addressed may include, but are not limited to:

  • The mediation of the unborn and newly born
  • New parents and social media platforms
  • Case studies or examples of infant media use
  • Newbs and noobs in gaming or online communities
  • The cultural implications of new forms of computational interfaces (e.g. the Internet of Things)
  • Myths of new beginnings and technological exceptionalism (e.g. 3D printing)
  • Early historical perspectives on digital media industries or events
  • Start-up spaces or cultures
  • Alternate beginnings (eg failed and forgotten inventions)

Prospective contributors should email an abstract of 100-250 words and a brief biography to the issue editors. Abstracts should include the article title and should describe your research question, approach, and argument. Biographies should be about three sentences (maximum 75 words) and should include your institutional affiliation and research interests. Articles should be 3000 words (plus bibliography). All articles will be refereed and must adhere to MLA style (6th edition).

Details
  • Article deadline: 14 Aug. 2015
  • Release date: 14 Oct. 2015
  • Editors: Bjorn Nansen and Tama Leaver

Please submit articles through this Website. Send any enquiries to beginnings@journal.media-culture.org.au.

Needless to say, enquiries are welcome, and early submissions, too!

[Image: 4/366: Beginning by Magic Madzik CC BY]

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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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