Extract from dissertation entitled “Exploring the Boundaries of Sharing Personal Content via Social Networks, from Prenatal to Posthumous.”

There is now over an estimated 30 million profiles of the deceased on Facebook (Kaleem, 2012), less on Twitter and with more people signing up to both websites everyday, this number will only increase. Facebook is known for connecting the living, but increasingly it now used as a platform to connect the deceased friends and family to commemorate and celebrate their life. However, on acceptance of a death certificate, Facebook does offer the option for the deceased’s family to either turn the profile into a memorial account or completely deactivate it. A memorialised profile is then only viewable by friends of the deceased who can still post on their wall and send private messages.

Who has the rights to users digital information when they die and why isn’t this issue integrated into the design of interfaces such as social networks and email accounts?

The term ‘Thanatosensitivity’ is a term coined fairly recently to encompass this idea and was first presented in 2009 by researchers from the University of Toronto. Google have announced that they are introducing an ‘inactive account manager’ which will let users control what happens to their personal information such as emails, photos and blog posts if their accounts are left inactive for a certain period of time. The problem is that family then can’t access the deceased social network accounts if an email address is withheld. Technology editor from the Guardian explains further: “with use of social networks becoming prevalent and an important window into peoples’ lives and friends, there have been recent examples of relatives of the dead being unable to gain access to the dead peoples’ accounts” (Arthur, 2013).

There seems be a great difference in opinion of what to do with the profile of a deceased social network user. For some it seems to create a community of friends and family where they can share their grief and celebrate their loved ones life, but for others it causes great distress.

When questioned about their feelings in the event of this, the majority of the respondents from my survey said that they wouldn’t know how they would feel, 35% felt it would bring the deceased friends and family together, 32% felt it would be a touching memorial, 16% would be uncomfortable, 12% would want all the profiles removed and 6% said they would be very distressed. Respondents left both positive and negative comments about the issue, including:

“I have been in this situation with an old university housemate. Hs profile is still open and his friends still use it to remember him each year and to include him in particular memories. It keeps him alive in our hearts and memories.”

“This has happened to me, and I think it is helpful for those who are grieving and a place for people to share.”

“I have a friend who is deceased on Facebook. Sometimes someone else logs into his account and it’s distressing but I can’t bring myself to delete him.”

“It seems like it might be a unhealthy way of preserving a persons memory which would slow down the grieving process in the long run.”

“A friend of mine passed away three years ago and his profile is still active. Friends often talk to him on it to say how much they miss him and often share songs etc. It is nice to know that everyone still misses him and thinks about him. I think it is really up to family to decide if they want profiles to continue in this way.”

When questioned about what they would like to happen to their social networking profiles, the majority of respondents wanted to leave it up to their friends and family, one made the following comment:

“It’ll be up to people to take away what they want from it. If they want to grab some photos from there, great – if they want to disconnect from it and keep their own memories private, that’s fine too. Everyone handles grief/loss differently, it’s not up to me to judge or decide.”

Research suggests that social networks can aid the grieving progress and become a sensitive tool for the bereaved to use to mourn the loss of a loved one.  By analysing the language used in wall posts by grieving friends on Facebook, researchers were able to conclude that they used the deceased’s profile as a way to maintain bonds, share memories, express sorrow and provide social support (Getty, 2011). CHI2010, a conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, acknowledged that an important factor in designing technology is integrating support for the event of death: “it is only through sensitive, thoughtful, and ethical consideration that technologies may be introduced that could one day help people make meaning, find solace, and grapple with mortality, dying, and death” (Massimi, 2010).

Media commentator Adam Ostrow, states in his TED talk that: “we are all creating an archive that is something completely different than anything that’s anything been created by any previous generation… Soon it may become possible for our digital personas to continue to interact in the real world long after we are gone, thanks to the vast amounts of content we are creating and technologies ability to make sense of it all” (Ostrow, 2011). Ostrow was referring to websites that are being developed for social network users to manage their own death, whether is it scheduling a final message to go out from your profile (www.ifidie.com) and (www.deadsoci.al), creating an online avatar that relatives can talk to (www.lifenaut.com) or more disturbingly, a Twitter account that analyses users past posts and keeps tweeting after they have passed away (www.liveson.org).

TV drama/sci-fi Black Mirror featured a plot along these lines, Set in the future, a young woman’s husband was tragically killed. She signs up for a posthumous service similar to the ones above and they use all of his social networking data to create a version of him that could email and call her. She ends up ordering a life size robot of him, but soon realises that an artificial replacement is no substitute for the man she loved and what she has done is incredibly unhealthy, as she can never move on (Black Mirror, 2012). Little do we know that this may be soon become a reality.

When questioned about these types of posthumous websites, 76% of the respondents from my survey said they would never use them and a further 32% said they would be uncomfortable seeing updates posted by these websites from deceased users who were their friends or family.

“Not so much offensive – I think these kind of sites deny people access to real emotions like private grief which is vital to the healing process. They induce a Diana Syndrome where people play out grief without really feeling true despair and so they can’t heal. The sites feel narcissistic in the sense that people are unable to let go of their lives and accept death”

“This to me is slightly too much. I wasn’t aware of them before now. When people of A Certain Age complain that we’re too obsessed with technology and social media, this is what I will think of – it’s one step beyond the video-will. While I don’t find it offensive as such – it’ll appeal to some and again, it’s not my place to judge – I think it’s tasteless, a bit too obsessive about social media, and I certainly wouldn’t use it.”

“It would make it much more painful and difficult to move on.”