Every time Rachel Miller goes to her Facebook page, she sees her mother’s photo looking back at her. This is disturbing to Miller, since her mother died six months ago.
Seeing her mother’s Facebook profile is “sort of a sick reminder that she’s gone but eerily still hanging around,” Miller says. “It’s kind of creepy, kind of sad.”
This creepy, sad experience is growing increasingly common. Approximately 60 percent of people over age 14 in the U.S. have Facebook pages, according to the company’s estimate, and rivals including Twitter and Pinterest are attract a growing number of people drawn to sharing the funny, absurd, poignant and intimate parts of their lives.
But while those lives inevitably end, our online lives continue. In fact, our online personalities and identities may actually grow on sites like Facebook long after our actual bodies have died, since our friends, family members, and even our enemies can continue adding to our profiles in the form of photos and written statements long after we shuffle off this mortal coil.
This may help the healing process for friends, which sometimes may be excluded by relatives from attending funeral services or cannot attend a burial due to travel distance, according to a study by Elaine Kaskett, a professor of psychology at London Metropolitan University. The “removal or retention of Facebook profiles has a potentially significant impact upon the bereavement experience, particularly that of friends, a formerly disenfranchised group of mourners,” Kaskett wrote in a recent paper on the topic.
The question of what to do with social media profiles after someone’s death is brand-new, and it poses myriad questions about our long-held assumptions and practices about privacy, Kaskett writes. Does our right to privacy end when we do? Does the online property of our collected photos and correspondence remain in perpetuity online, or does it flow automatically to our closest relative or anyone to whom it’s bequeathed in a will, as actual property does?
Privacy experts, academics and lawmakers are just now beginning to wrangle with these questions.
“This is a brand-new concern that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet,” said Adam Levin, the founder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. “But as we as a society continue our love affair with and addiction to social media, it will only become more problematic.”
The only official response to these questions so far has come from the social media sites themselves. On Flickr, the profiles of the dead continue just as they did when the people were alive, and photos marked private remain private, even to family members.
Facebook allows family members to place a deceased relative’s profile in “memorial state,” which removes status updates and restricts access to current friends, or to remove the profile entirely. As Rachel Miller discovered, however, figuring out how to do either of these things can be tricky, and Facebook offers no telephone support.
“So far I haven’t found an easy way to contact a real person [at Facebook] or take down my mother’s profile,” Miller says, nor does Facebook have any policies where a lack of activity over a certain period of time would prompt users to renew or close the account.
But perhaps because the act was passed in 2003, before social networking sites matured and became popular, it contains no specific language regarding what to do with users’ data after they die. Nor do any federal laws cover what should happen in such situations.
Which means that for the moment, users of social media sites are largely on their own when deciding what should happen to their profiles after their demise.
If you’re concerned about your social media life living on after you die, here are three steps you may consider to protect your privacy and your memory among your friends and family.
1. Treat it Like a House
If you own a home, you should have a will to cover what happens to that large asset when you die. The same should happen with your social media profiles. When you write your will, dedicate a section of it to social media, saying explicitly what you want done with your profiles. Should they be left open for everyone to respond to your death? Closed to all but close relatives, or closed entirely? Name your preference. Then designate a person to manage those profiles in accordance with your wishes, and give him or her the login information needed to carry them out.
2. Correct Things Now
Maybe you have inappropriate photos lingering in your private Facebook albums, things you wouldn’t want your spouse or children to see. Find a better, more private place to store them, and then delete them from your profile entirely.
3. Choose Friends Wisely
Be Honest. How many people have you “friended” on Facebook who actually are much closer to enemies, just to keep tabs on their miserable and pathetic lives? Probably a few. When you die, those people will have access to your profile, and can post whatever they want. Consider de-friending them sooner rather than later.
Image: Remko van Dokkum, via Flickr