Can Twitter and Facebook deal with their dead?
Stewart Mitchell investigates how the social networks cope when their members die
One and a half million Facebook users die each year. Twitter faces a similar mortality rate. It's a growing problem for the social-networking sites - and often even more so for the relatives left behind.
Reminders to "reconnect" with deceased friends and relatives, or the automatic deletion of dead people's accounts are only two of the ways in which social-networking sites can add to the pain of grieving friends and relatives.
Which is why social-networking sites are being forced to deal with their dead. Just this week, Twitter finally announced that it has a policy on what happens to users' accounts after they die. Relatives can choose to delete or archive accounts, once they have provided proof that the account holder is dead and they have the right to act for the deceased.
But in order to achieve this, the grieving relatives must send Twitter their full name and contact details, an explanation of their relationship to the deceased, the user name of the Twitter account and links to a public obituary that provides proof of death. Hardly a straightforward process.
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Nevertheless, the move could at least prevent digital echoes from bringing painful reminders of friends and family that have passed away. On the same day that Twitter announced the policy, its “Who to follow” feature was recommending the much-missed technology journalist Guy Kewney, who passed away in April.
Although he would probably have appreciated the irony, such digital echoes can often be disturbing for those left behind. “We often hear stories from people who are upset that people keep texting the deceased's phone,” a London funeral director told PC Pro. “To be fair, it's people that don't know they have died, or it might be junk SMSs, but it can be distressing for someone dealing with the whole process of death certificates and other arrangements. Things like email and online accounts are worse, because they tend to be there for longer.”
So although Twitter's latest policy is seen as a step in the right direction, some experts believe it doesn't go far enough and there is increasing attention on what the bereaved can or can't do with the online legacies.
Twitter, for example, doesn't grant relatives access to the deceased's account or allow accounts to be transferred to the next of kin. Nor does it make any provision for members planning ahead for their own death.
“If a user asks their digital executor to either delete or archive their Twitter account, they would be in luck,” said Evan Carroll of the Digital Beyond said in her blog. “That said, the ideal situation would allow Twitter users to specify their wishes before their death, perhaps in their account settings.
”Why not allow profiles to stay in place with a memorialised indicator? Perhaps even dedicate space on a user’s page to replies that they receive following death. There are opportunities here to design a much better memorial to the user, rather than ushering their profile away as if they never existed.”