What happens to all my social networking information when I die?

According to Forrester Research, 55.6 million adults in the United States have a social networking account with a site like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. More people join social networking sites every day. For some users, online networks serve as the primary means of staying in touch with friends and family. Social networking sites let us post our thoughts, pictures, videos, music and other content. But what happens to all of that when we die?

It's a sobering problem. As we invest more of ourselves into our online presence, we become more affected by the things we see and do on the Internet. We also affect our online friends. It might seem like worrying about what happens to your online presence after your death is a trivial matter but it's becoming more important as time goes on.

Part of the reason for that is the Internet provides a place for people to express thoughts and feelings as they grieve a loss. Your social networking profile could become a spot where your friends and family can share memories of you. People who might not otherwise hear of your passing may learn of it through your profile page.

But maintaining a presence online after you die has its share of problems as well. Mean-spirited people -- called trolls in the online world -- might take the opportunity to leave insulting or inflammatory comments on your page just to stir up trouble. Who guards your profile after you're gone? Can someone request access to your accounts to act as custodian to your online presence?

The answer varies from one site to another. As of yet, there is no law in the United States with rules about how to handle an online presence after someone passes away. Each company creates its own policies. Some, like MySpace, do so on a case-by-case basis. Others, like Facebook, establish rules that allow friends and relatives to transform a normal profile into a memorial.

Next, we'll look at Facebook's approach to handling the profile of a deceased user.

The Canadian government's concerns over user privacy helped shape Facebook's policies on memorial accounts.

AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Seal Kilpatrick

Facebook After Death

Facebook instituted a policy a few years ago regarding how to handle the profiles of deceased individuals. Family members could choose one of two options: close the account -- Facebook will delete an account permanently upon the family's request -- or converting the account into a memorial profile. Facebook's policy states the company will never release login information to anyone other than the account holder, even after death [source: Facebook].

Before making any changes, Facebook requires proof that the user has died. First, someone must use an online form to report the user's demise. Within that form is a space to include a link to an obituary or news report confirming the death. Facebook employees then review the user's profile to verify there has been no recent activity. Only then will the company begin the conversion process.

A profile undergoes several changes when switching into a memorial. Facebook removes sensitive information from the profile. This includes contact information and addresses. The company also removes status updates to protect the privacy of the deceased user.

Facebook changes the profile settings so that only friends can find the profile and post information to the user's wall. This lets other members visit the profile and use it as a place of grieving and healing while preventing digital vandalism from trolls. Searches for the deceased user on Facebook's search engine will not list the memorial page.

The company will also deactivate the user's login information. This prevents anyone from guessing the user's password and logging in to cause mischief.

If no one contacts Facebook to alert the company of the user's passing, his or her profile will remain active indefinitely. Facebook doesn't delete inactive accounts without notification. Depending upon the user's privacy settings, people will still be able to search and visit the profile and leave comments.

Not every site has established a policy for dealing with death. Some will obey whatever the family wishes as long as the company receives proof of the user's passing. A few won't take any action without a copy of a death certificate. Other companies won't make any changes at all. But as the issue pops up, more online social networks are adopting rules to handle the situation.

Next, we'll look at a few things you can do to make it easier for your family to handle your online presence after you die.

Preparing Your Online Life for Death

What can you do to help your family or friends manage your online presence after you die? Depending on your level of activity online, you may have dozens of different accounts. And some sites may not have policies in place to deal with your account after your death.

One thing you can do is designate someone to be in charge of your online accounts after you die. You'll need to create a list of your user names and passwords and put it in a safe place. A few companies will store that information for you, usually for a fee.

One of those companies is Legacy Locker. The company offers three plans. You can create a free account and store up to three assets (e.g., login information), designate one beneficiary to retrieve those assets should you pass away and write a Legacy Letter. Legacy Letters are messages the company will deliver to designated recipients after verifying that you've died.

Or you can set up a paid account. For $29.99 a year, members can store an unlimited number of assets and designate as many beneficiaries as they like. There is no limit on the number of Legacy Letters they can create. They can also use an online document backup system and upload videos to the site for others to watch after they pass on. For a one-time fee of $299.99, members can create an account that will remain active without the need for yearly payments.

Besides Legacy Locker, here are other companies that will store information for you and release it to designated individuals upon proof of your death. And while online services offer convenience, they may not be as secure as you would like. After all, you're storing all of your login information with one service. If a hacker should get access to the company's files, he or she would be able to access all of your login information you've stored. That might include everything from social networking profiles to online bank accounts.

You don't have to rely on a third party if you prefer to maintain your own list of login information. In fact, there are several ways to encrypt your data, and you could give the decryption key to people you trust. You could also designate an executor to your online property in your will.

So, what to do with a dead user's information remains a tricky subject. Most social networking sites allow users to post comments and messages to each other, but who owns that data? Is it the recipient, the sender or the company? If you've left a message for someone and they pass away, can you retrieve it? These are questions most sites have yet to address.

Even though companies are beginning to acknowledge the problem of what to do with your data once you die, most of the responsibility falls to you and your family. It's not a lot of fun to think about but a little consideration could save your loved ones from experiencing hours of frustration on top of their grief.

Find out more about social networking sites by following the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Anderson, Jackie. "Consumer Behavior Online: A 2009 Deep Dive." Forrester Research. July 27, 2009. (Oct. 29, 2009) http://www.forrester.com/Research/Document/Excerpt/0,7211,54327,00.html
  • Facebook. "Privacy: Deactivating, Deleting and Memorializing Accounts." (Oct. 27, 2009) http://www.facebook.com/help.php?page=842
  • Hortobagyi, Monica. "Slain students' pages to stay on Facebook." USA Today. May 9, 2007. (Oct. 28, 2009) http://www.usatoday.com/tech/webguide/internetlife/2007-05-08-facebook-vatech_N.htm
  • Legacy Locker. (Oct. 28, 2009) http://legacylocker.com/
  • Scoble, Robert. "Protect your online life after death." Scobleizer. March 13, 2009. (Oct. 28, 2009) http://scobleizer.com/2009/03/13/protect-your-online-life-after-death/
  • Simony, Mallory. "New services promise online life after death." CNN. May 18, 2009. (Oct. 28, 2009) http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/05/18/death.online/index.html
  • St. John, Warren. "Rituals of Grief Go Online." The New York Times. April 27, 2006. (Oct. 27, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/27/technology/27myspace.html Ward, Mark. "Can you live online after death?" BBC News. Sept. 27, 2004. (Oct. 29, 2009) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3693242.stm
  • Williams, J. Craig. "Email After Death, What Are Your Plans?" May It Please The Court. April 21, 2005. (Oct. 28, 2009)http://www.mayitpleasethecourt.com/journal.asp?blogId=786