With numerous accounts across multiple platforms, modern life is digital. But what about death? Tech companies are trying to deal with it, but users are often left in uncertainty.
Social media has been around for more than two decades now. It’s not only become an integral part of our lives but also inevitably part of death, too.
The internet remembers. While the physical body may no longer exist, with numerous digital accounts across multiple platforms, digital personas remain.
Will digital accounts — like the mythical Horcruxes in Harry Potter with its hidden pieces of the soul — continue to live, scattered in the vast digital realms for eternity? Or will all traces of digital existence eventually vanish into thin air?
Big tech companies have tried to figure out ways to deal with death, yet users often find themselves in a state of uncertainty and ambiguity. When it comes to empathy and ethical dilemmas, tech companies seem to lack sensitivity and the human touch.
The right to be forgotten — or remembered
The primary challenge of death in the digital realm revolves around the impediments to exercising your right to be forgotten or remembered. In essence, you lack ownership over the data residing on social media platforms, relinquishing decision-making authority to tech companies.
While certain platforms offer the option to express your final wishes and have your profile deleted upon your demise, others impose a burdensome paperwork process on relatives who must submit requests to deactivate profiles.
Similarly, preserving your digital legacy rests upon the internal policies of tech companies, which can be subject to change at any time, leaving the fate of your life's digital remnants uncertain.
When addressing digital death, various delicate decisions regarding user experience come into play. Not all relatives may be willing or equipped with the knowledge to navigate the process of managing the digital accounts left behind by the deceased. As a result, social media platforms can become haunted by the lingering presence of accounts belonging to individuals who are no longer with us. On top of that, updates from deceased profiles, such as birthdays or graduation anniversaries, could inflict additional emotional distress upon grieving relatives.
Let’s take a closer look at how Google, Meta, and Twitter deal with death.
Your Google account will be deleted
Google owns a set of platforms – such as YouTube, Photos, or Drive, that contain a thriving collection of personal data and digital legacy. This might be gone after a person dies and his or her account becomes inactive.
In mid-May, Google announced updates to its policy. Starting later this year, the company will delete accounts that have not been used for at least two years.
The policy change caused an uproar among users, raising moral questions about the accounts of the deceased. In the modern era of technology, online platforms have evolved into treasure troves of personal memories and vital documents. As a result, they hold immense value for the family and friends of the deceased individual.
Not to mention there are YouTube videos that, despite being uploaded by inactive accounts, have become part of internet history and continue to be viewed by users on the platform. So while Google owns the servers, do the users own the sentimental and intellectual value that digital content creates?
This question probably encouraged Google to give it a second thought. Following the initial announcement of the policy change, the company updated its post to state that they “do not have plans to delete accounts with YouTube videos at this time.” Internet fanatics can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their favorite YouTube videos will remain, even if the creator passes on.
However, the inactive accounts on other Google-owned platforms are still up for deletion. With a current Google policy, you have two options when dealing with your death, and just one involves your free will.
Just as writing a will to whom you leave your country house or exquisite watch collection, you can set your personal data inheritance. By using the Inactive Account Manager feature, you have the ability to designate a trusted individual who can receive notifications in the event of prolonged inactivity and download your data.
If you fail to appoint a trustee for your digital legacy in time, the relatives can request Google to provide access to the account's content later. However, the company reserves the right to decide whether or not to grant such access, as any decision is “made only after a careful review.”
Forever on Facebook and Instagram
Parting ways with Facebook is a daunting endeavor. If you ever tried deleting your account, you’ve probably noticed that it embarks you on a 90-day odyssey to get all of your data deleted from Meta’s servers, leaving the possibility to change your mind and come back as if nothing has happened.
Leaving is hard even after death, as Facebook is not going after inactive accounts. Many deceased people continue to live on their inactive profiles. Like ghosts, they’re listed on friend lists and receive happy birthday wishes from absent-minded Facebook friends who never noticed that the person is actually no longer among the living.
Similarly to Google, Facebook allows you to express your final will regarding the destiny of your digital persona. This includes requesting profile deletion once the company is notified of your passing or, alternatively, designating a legacy contact who can take care of your digital memorial profile or download a copy of your data.
A Memorialized Account on Facebook closely resembles a regular profile, faithfully preserving the visual elements of the deceased individual's photo, cover photo, friends list, posts, and About information, mirroring their digital presence during their lifetime.
The only difference is that the word "Remembering" appears above the user name on the profile, and users' friends don’t get birthday notifications or suggestions to become friends.
Meta-owned Instagram also deals with death with “Remembering” accounts, similar to Facebook. The posts shared by the deceased individual, including photos and videos, remain on Instagram and are viewable by the original intended audience. However, no modifications can be made to the uploaded content.
Another option provided by the platform is to allow immediate family members the right to request that the account be removed from Instagram.
Uncertain Afterlife on Twitter
Twitter's policy currently states that you must log in at least every 30 days to keep your account active, and prolonged inactivity may result in an account being permanently removed.
In the event of the death of a Twitter user, relatives can file a request for profile deactivation. However, it seems that Twitter still has no idea how to deal with those who are no longer with us but want to be remembered in the digital realm.
In May, Elon Musk tweeted about the platform starting to “purge” inactive accounts, causing a rise of concern regarding the profiles of the deceased ones. While there are many ways that people use social media, they deserve to be remembered if they wish.
This wasn’t the first time that Twitter raised the question regarding inactive accounts. Back in 2019, the company made an announcement regarding this step but swiftly reversed its decision due to user backlash.
“We’ve heard you on the impact that this would have on the accounts of the deceased. This was a miss on our part,” the company acknowledged, basically confirming that they hadn’t thought about the emotional and ethical consequences of inactive profile deletions.
At the time, Twitter clarified that it would refrain from deleting inactive accounts until it devised an alternative method for memorializing them.
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