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Can Twitter and Facebook deal with their dead?


By Stewart Mitchell

Posted on 12 Aug 2010 at 10:40

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.

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.”

Online legacies

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.”

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User comments


Something I had never thought about.

By mviracca on 12 Aug 2010

Social networking will?

"In the event of my death, please email" ?

By cheysuli on 12 Aug 2010

I think this is critical issue, which is much wider than simply social networking. People's digital footprint is becoming increasingly bigger, how do my relatives know what to do with my Yahoo e-mail account or my photos on Flickr? Do they even know I have photos on Flickr? I don't print many photos, so if the account is deleted the images may be lost, unless they figure out how to log-in to my laptop or access my wireless network and get at my NAS.

Now that many financial and utility companies provide paperless statements there could be very little to work with when someone passes away.

A little morbid but perhaps this all needs to be in an annex to my Will ... :-o

By paulgspence on 12 Aug 2010

What you can do, is purchase something like an IronKey, put your secure details such as email adresses with passwords etc into this device. Update it as and when you join something. Then when you create a will, make sure that you leave details on how to access the device inside the will. As long as your will is kept in a secured area then that would do.

By _delp_ on 12 Aug 2010

Ah.. ok the IronKey will do the job But won't you need two as you will need to keep the password of the firt IronKey safe... Hang on you will need three, no my mistake four...or is it five

By neillbrooks on 12 Aug 2010

A will should always be kept somewhere safe and should never be opened until your death. So providing you do that you're fine. Their are many options that you could use for secure storage of your will.

By _delp_ on 12 Aug 2010

TYNT is for goons

You nudnicks! I can't even copy and paste the title of this article into my Twitter client because TYNT's appended garbage causes it to exceed 140 characters.

Please throw TYNT into the trash where it belongs!

By MacSmiley on 12 Aug 2010

What I would do

When my mum died (pre-internet; at least she was) I sent cards to everyone in her addressbook - who reads obituaries, anyway?
Now, as executor, I would hope to get speedy access to social media accounts, change the status to "deceased", and give details of funeral arrangements, memorials etc.
Later I would consider the question of deleting or archiving the account.
Just because someone has died, doesn't mean their social status should be frozen or killed.
Regarding Ironkey etc., I agree - a sealed envelope kept with a will or otherwise, marked "in the event of death", could give access to passwords.

By adaviel on 12 Aug 2010

Another consideration of dead account owners

Another consideration is what excessive numbers of dead members will do to social media metrics. It's already difficult to establish statistics on social media usage in relationship to traditional population measures, so having mortality mixed in complicates measurement even further. See:

By ddmcd on 12 Aug 2010

Why no photographs?

Our son was killed in a road accident last year. His facebook page has provided a place for family and friends to share memories. However, we would have like to have been able to add photographs, which isn't possible once the account is memorialised. Not a big issue, just something that surprised us when we noticed it.

By smithdom on 12 Aug 2010

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