In the film Get Low, Robert Duvall's character Felix Bush disappears into the woods for 30 years, then fakes his death so he can plan and attend his own funeral. It's a way to find out what others think of him, and to absolve himself of past mistakes. The uncertainty of one's final hours means many wish they could have a more direct say in the events surrounding their death.
Going to the extremes of Felix Bush, however, are no longer necessary. Writer, musician and long-time blogger Derek K Miller chose to announce his own death in a blog post he had prepared beforehand, which went live the day he died. After a battle against cancer, Miller shared his thoughts and feelings on dying, and left final messages for his loved ones. His Web site remains active, and continues to serve as an online memorial of his life and legacy.
Death is not an issue people generally want to linger on. But the question of what happens to online profiles and content post-mortem is gaining attention, as people share more of their lives online. The amount of personal details, sensitive information, messages, chats, tweets, photos and videos on the average user's social networks and e-mail accounts is staggering.
These platforms have become a living archive of personal and professional communication, and unless provision is made for them, may remain floating about in cyber space for all to see.
Michael Gartenberg, research director on Gartner's Consumer Services and Applications team, says digital media has changed the nature of public identity. “Social media and the rise of sharing have now created a library of consumer social breadcrumbs. For some, this is a legacy to leave behind so others can see how they lived. For others, it's not something they wish to leave online.”
There's also the issue of passwords, encrypted banking account information, and assets that can be overlooked. A UK study released in March reveals millions of pounds a year risk being lost as Britons fail to include online bank accounts and music collections in their wills.
Things that are posted on the Internet tend to linger forever.Michael Gartenberg
Of the 2 000 people surveyed, 80% said their digital assets were financially valuable, while over half said information held online or on PCs contained important domestic and personal details. But while 80% of people own digital assets, only 9% have considered how they will pass these on when they die.
Spike Jones, senior VP of customer experience, Digital/Word of Mouth at Fleishman-Hillard, says the thought of 'digital life after death' doesn't rank very high on most people's agenda.
“The digital kids are the 'now' kids and they give very little thought to what's going to happen next week, let alone what's going to happen to their digital properties after they pass from this life.”
The living dead
The major social networking players, however, have given it some thought, and introduced basic policies for dealing with members' passing, as well as spaces for loved ones to preserve their memories.
Facebook offers the option for a profile to be deleted, and turned into a memorial page, if family members request it. This prevents anyone from logging into or viewing the account in future, but lets confirmed family and friends leave posts on the profile wall in remembrance.
Sensitive information like contact details and status updates are removed, and the deceased user will no longer appear in the 'People you may know' suggestion panel. Facebook requires a death certificate or news report confirming the member's death.
Social media strategist Anton Koekemoer says that with social media now forming part of everyday life, it's only natural that death will become part of it too, with the need to 'update' someone's profile when they pass away.
“As people invest more of their living knowledge and data into digital media, the legacy of a 'virtual life' becomes increasingly important.”
In addition, as the number of older people joining Facebook increases (Nielsen statistics show growth is being driven by the over-50s), the digital afterlife is set to become a more pressing issue. With 750 million users at last count, and the number of 50- to 64-year-old visitors growing 84% since 2009, the site faces dealing with thousands of members' deaths in future.
Twitter has also made provision, and will remove a deceased user's account if requested, and assist family members in saving a backup of their public tweets. It requires the personal and contact details of the relative and their relationship to the dead user. Twitter also requests the account username or link to the profile page, as well as a link to a public obituary or news article confirming their death.
You never know when it's going to happen.Paul Jacobson
Koekemoer doesn't think the death policies on Twitter and Facebook are comprehensive enough, saying it's necessary to update profiles as well, to let people in users' networks know they've passed away.
“The world is changing in ways that now impact even death. Instead of simply writing an obituary when someone passes away, social media profiles must be updated and changed. They do, however, also present the opportunity for an online memorial.”
In the case of celebrities, memorial pages for stars like Michael Jackson have hundreds of thousands of followers, and are kept up to date with tributes, galleries and special fan events.
Locally, actor Zack du Plessis, known for his roles in 'Orkney Snork Nie' and 'Vetkoek Paleis', who died in June, had a Facebook page set up in his honour mere hours after his death, with fans giving their condolences on social networking sites.
But digital life after death can also turn ugly. The practice of trolling sees memorialised pages covered in hateful messages and obscene images. Reported cases include a 15-year-old UK teen who had committed suicide, whose father was horrified to discover doctored images of his son in a noose on his Facebook page, along with sick jokes and comments.
Another highly publicised trolling event was that of Natasha MacBryde, also 15, who died in a train accident in February. Friends created a Facebook memorial page but RIP trolls soon added nasty comments and even created macabre YouTube videos.
Facebook may also have to look at implementing more detailed policies to guard against its memorial service being used in potentially insensitive ways. One Canadian family, for example, didn't create a RIP page for their son, who hadn't had a Facebook account while he was alive, but created a new one, and sent friend requests on his behalf. For friends who didn't know he had died, the Facebook request served as a notification of his death. For those who did, it seemed like a cruel reminder. The family thought it was the best way to inform people of his passing.
Nel-Marie Erasmus, search engine optimisation and social media specialist at local marketing company Digital Fire, says if profiles remain online, social networks may over time become a collection of vulnerable profiles without owners. These make prime targets for hackers, and she adds that family members may want to close profiles to prevent abuse.
“If the deceased's family or friends do not request removal of the page, the information will stay within the cyber world as long as that social platform is live.”
While memorial pages may bring comfort to family members, Erasmus suggests it may be better to close all avenues that could lead to misuse of personal information.
“The risk of hackers and malicious individuals trying to exploit the fact that the profile no longer belongs to a living human might impose more grief and discomfort for the loved ones already trying to deal with their loss.”
Jones adds that the chances of identity theft might be greater if hackers know the individual has passed away, as it would take longer for someone to notice.
In future, says Koekemoer, other popular Web 2.0 channels are likely to add the Facebook option to memorialise accounts, and incorporate features that allow family members to manage the profile of a loved one who's died.
“Even though social media has been around for a couple of years, it is still very new. I believe what happens to your 'online identity' when you pass away will become more important in the next few years.”
Apart from memorial services on social networks, there are several sites dedicated to preserving one's memory online.
The world is changing in ways that now impact even death.Anton Koekemoer
Some, like 1 000memories, have galleries and sharing features eerily similar to conventional social networks, except all the people featured are dead. The site allows users to both share the life of a loved one and “discover the memories of others”, by seeing which deceased relatives and friends other users are celebrating.
Respectance lets subscribers set up a tribute page where friends and family can share memories, as well as offering what it calls 'emo-social media'. This apparent combination of rich media and relevant content provides an outlet for emotional expression, according to the site, which it claims isn't appropriately handled on regular social networking sites.
“The Web is now full of possibilities,” says Koekemoer. “Instead of having a 'memorial plate' at your local church for your remembrance, why not create your own Web site or blog for remembrance when you die?”
As online content and personas proliferate, more people are recognising the need to get their digital affairs in order, and making arrangements for personal data management after death.
Various sites have been set up to ease the process, and to allow loved ones access to passwords and online accounts.
Legacy Locker, for example, allows users to convey their digital assets, whether it be Facebook, Gmail, or PayPal account information, to a beneficiary. DataInherit is punted as the 'Swiss bank account' of online password and document storage, offering online safes from Switzerland for those wanting to secure highly valuable information, or who take personal data backup seriously.
Other sites offer more niche services, such as Great Goodbye, which lets users “send an e-mail from the grave”. Members can create their final will, letters, photos or videos, which are e-mailed to one or several recipients in the event of their death. It requires users to register activation codes, which they give to someone they trust, and need to be provided for the e-mails to be sent.
For those nervous about their final preparations, there's also the self funeral planning site My Wonderful Life, which features the tagline “you only get one chance to make a last impression”. Users can plan their funerals, write their obituary, design their headstone, and even specify which songs they'd like played at their funeral.
If nothing else, says Jones, it's a good idea to talk to loved ones about what should happen to digital assets after death.
“Things that are posted on the Internet tend to linger forever,” adds Gartenberg. “The ability to search and retrieve information means that a person's digital persona will likely live beyond them. As with all things, they will fade over time, albeit over a longer period.”
Digital media lawyer Paul Jacobson says the legal community isn't looking at these issues in detail yet, as the technologies haven't been around long enough.
“It depends on how valuable people think their social networking profiles are. People publish a lot of content on these sites, such as photos, which family members might want to preserve.”
On the professional side, says Jacobson, more care has to be taken to protect information that may have value, such as intellectual property.
“You never know when it's going to happen, so on a basic level, ensure that family members have the passwords for your laptop and phone,” says Jacobson. “These accounts may contain a lot of information your family could need to manage your estate.”
He adds that it's important to keep passwords updated, and to choose solutions that match the technical proficiency of the person handling one's affairs. “If they're comfortable with technology, you can save the information in an encrypted PDF or Word file on your laptop.”
Another solution, says Jacobson, is putting everything in a file and locking it in a safety deposit box. “The big challenge with this is keeping things up to date, but the risk is low that anyone is going to be able to access it.
“The key consideration should be to give family members meaningful and secure access after you're gone.”
Jacobson believes that as people start becoming more aware of the scope of social media, they'll see the need to make provision for digital assets in their will. “It's not a huge concern yet, but it's definitely something people should start thinking about.”
Erasmus advocates taking the safe route. “Personally, I believe once a person has passed away, their account should be deleted - not memorialised, not deactivated, but deleted. No one should have access in the case of content sensitive to the deceased and to ensure their privacy is maintained in the after life.
“Loved ones may learn things that could rather have stayed private and hackers will be kept out of reach, to eliminate negative and unethical use of this individual's profile or social presence.”
This sense of limbo is becoming just as relevant in the online world as Felix Bush suggests it is in real life: “There's alive and there's dead, and there's a worse place in between.”