Facebook: Is it time to write a digital will?

When I was around twelve years old I had high fever. With a mixture of paranoia and hypochondria I dramatically said to my mother that my sister could have my CD player if I would die.

Today I’m well and less dramatic. However, if I were to die or fall ill would I then feel inclined to tell my sister to take control of my Facebook account?


Image Credit: Sean MacEntee (Flickr)

Last week Facebook introduced a new feature, which allows users to choose a legacy contact, such as a friend or family member. This chosen person would manage the account once the account holder has passed away. So, we have reached a point where it is seemingly necessary to not only have a will applying to the physical but also a second one for the digital world we live in. Since the internet is relatively new and the average age of user is getting older we are facing a few issues such as: Who should have access to our data? How do we want to be remembered? How are we going to handle this new notion of a digital afterlife?

By talking to people who have experienced loss, we realized there is more we can do to support those who are grieving and those who want a say in what happens to their account after death.

Facebook, February 12, 2015

The new feature takes place when the death of a user has been confirmed with Facebook, they memorialise the profile and the assigned legacy contact will be able to:

  • Write a post on the memorialised timeline
  • Respond to friend requests of friend and family that had were not connected on Facebook
  • Update the persons profile picture and cover photo


Image Credit: Charis Tsevis (Flickr) 

With the permission of the account holder the legacy contact can later download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information that has been shared on Facebook.

There are of course restrictions to how much access your legacy contact has to your account. For example, he/she cannot enter your personal messages or log in in your name. Also, the rest of your settings cannot be altered with at this stage.

The feature is optional and has so far only been made available in the US. There is also other option, where one instead of a legacy contact can have the Facebook account deleted. 

Google was the first large company to deal with the issue of ‘digital afterlife’. In 2013, Google introduced a tool which enabled users to decide what would happen to their data when they die. They could, similarly to Facebook’s feature, chose to have their data deleted after a certain amount of time or pass it on to a contact person.

However, Facebook has had a memorial process since 2009. It prevents late users to appear alongside the advertisement and friends would not be reminded of their birthdays. For example, Facebook’s Ifidie app gives users the opportunity to share a video after their death.

In an interview with the BBC, Evan Carroll, who runs the Digital Beyond, said “We are accumulating far more digital records in our lives than we are physical ones […] But we haven’t yet entered the age where we are taking the question of what happens to those records seriously.”

Social networks are a relatively new concept. A lot of websites grew fast and fell even faster. Therefore, it is hard to say how long Facebook will last. Emily Dunham, from What If claims that if Facebook follows the faith of many websites and starts losing market share this decade and fails to recover, the amount of dead people’s profiles on Facebook would exceed the living by 2065.

Certain aspects of this online after death planning may seem a bit morbid. Not only do we control the content we share on Facebook, now we want to control afterlife and how we are remembered on the social network.

Nevertheless, a large part of the global population spends many hours a day online. The digital sphere has become a huge part of people’s lives. We produce thousands and thousands pieces of content during our lifetime, so-called digital property. For example, our email account is the key to most log-ins and allows access to multiple other accounts. In case of death, it is important to have a digital will not only because of sentimental value, but also economic value. A will concerning digital content and digital access could also make it easier for family members to organise unresolved online businesses of the deceased.


Image Credit: Joseph Morris (Flickr) 

Still, if the notions of digital will and digital property develop further we would want to look over restrictions and legal aspects of the new issue. Take privacy for that matter. Who should have access to your digital accounts? Facebook and Google have both already been to court over access to deceased people’s accounts.

There has been a growth of pages specialising on the issue of digital afterlife and afterlife services. DeadSocial is a free online service that helps people to upload unlimited content such as, photos, posts, videos and text messages on social networks after they have passed. To The Guardian, Founder and CEO of DeadSocial, James Norris said, “When we pass away, our digital footprints become our digital legacy. This is a way of organising and taking ownership over your digital content, and altering it how you’d want to be remembered.”


Image credit: Sean MacEntee (Flickr)

Anja C. Nilsson wrote for the Harvard Crimson, “Fast-forward to 2070, and each of us will find a lifetime of digital content tied to our identity.” Nilsson also discussed at the two different schools in regards to the future of digital property. First, the perservanists who think we owe it to the future generations to save all the digital content, no matter how small. Secondly, the deletionists who believe we need to learn how to forget and get rid of the dead data online as it eventually will outnumber the content produced by the living.

Maybe the new Facebook legacy contact is a huge leap towards something bigger. In a time of YOLO (You Only Live Once) perhaps it would be wise to start thinking about how we should view our digital property, who should ‘inherit’ the access to it, and what laws should regulate it.


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