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Facebook And Your Afterlife...

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Most consumers want to maintain control over who accesses and uses their personal information. Today she tackles a control issue that affects all social media users and few want to discuss.]

By R. Michelle Green

Facebook logo No one wants to think about death. I know from personal experience it can be sudden, random, and inexplicable. There’s law and precedent to guide what happens to your estate upon death, but what happens to the things you leave behind online? Facebook says you own all the data you post on their site. Does that ownership and control transfer to your heirs as physical property would? In a word – No.

Of course, it’s not that simple.

On Facebook as with any site, ownership is operationalized through the use of your ID and password. If your executor or next of kin knows the magic word, control of your virtual assets is no problem. If not, things become more complex. If no one tells Facebook anything, the account stays up and viable, even if there is no activity. Surprisingly, Facebook does not close or deactivate accounts just for inactivity, no matter how long they may be fallow.

An account can be deactivated and reactivated at will with the password. It can be deleted outright, an action that cannot be undone. Facebook Terms say that no one can access the data in a deleted account, and that Facebook will never use the data. For technical reasons things like photos may be on their servers for a little while after deletion (likely until it's overwritten with more data – or until Mark Zuckerberg decides that even dead people want to share everything). No such promises are offered in the FAQ for memorialized or deactivated accounts.

The relevant Facebook FAQ privileges the option to 'memorialize' the page of the dead person (a close family member must provide a link to an online obituary). With this action, no one else can friend the account. If you are already a friend, you can post things to the page and share your grief or memories with others in the dead person's existing circle of friends. Facebook removes key data from the profile (contact info, addresses, etc.), and pulls it from searches on or off Facebook (only friends can search Facebook and find it). It also stops the "you might know X why don't you friend him" suggestions, which is only appropriate.

It felt a tad scary to me that Facebook only requires an obit or a news article rather than a death certificate. As Jeff Goldblum knows, with internet connectivity and today's instant news cycle, that can be problematic. I also found it quite tacky that while searching for death at Facebook's help center, I got ads for several death-titled games along side the straightforward FAQs:

Searching Facebook FAQs for information about death
Click on image to view larger version.

Being an Izzard fan, the “Cake-or-Death?” app caught my eye. If I were really grieving would I find this offensive? Someone at Facebook should have enough class to keep such a juxtaposition from occurring.

What’s the best approach? All have some value – the issue is making sure someone knows what you think would be best for you and your family, and that you have the ability to follow that path. Some online commenters suggested the will should say explicitly whether account deletion or memorialization is desired; click here to read a moving vote for the latter.

To have the most options, you may want to be sure that someone knows your passwords (or how to deduce them) upon your death, particularly if you frequently shop or pay bills online. As Facebook might lock family out once apprised of the owner’s death (recall that only the owner has permission to use the account under Facebook's terms), whatever actions heirs want to take should be timely. There are service providers who will maintain your passwords for you, as well. As a fan of informed choice, I especially appreciated this article for its thorough analysis about our virtual property after death.

Now the awkward cynical questions -- how much ad revenue do they get from those memorialized pages? What could Facebook do with its “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license” to use our photos and videos (a license we grant each time we upload content, and which ends only with the account’s closing)? Given that a memorial is only available to friends, does Facebook now get to reset any privacy settings previously customized to lists? What about access from those in one’s network? If any of our readers can shed light on these questions, please do.

By the way, I find no villain in this scenario. Our technological capabilities almost always outpace the law, and Facebook is just part of that landscape. As the current 400-pound gorilla of social networking, however, Facebook’s actions (and inactions) set precedent, for better or for worse. (The Bemister family would vehemently disagree with the pass I’ve given Facebook. A second article has more detail about the evolution of social network technology versus law and precedent, with a couple of anecdotal horror stories.)

Talk to you later. I gotta go work on my will.


© 2010. R. Michelle Green. Reprinted with permission.

Comments

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George

And, there will be life after Facebook:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/nyregion/12about.html
Four Nerds and a Cry to Arms Against Facebook

I'd be happy to switch once the service from these students is available.

George
Editor
http://ivebeenmugged.typepad.com

Charles Jeter

Thanks Michelle,

Four days before Christmas 2009 a close friend of mine was murdered in Dallas at the young age of 25. Her Facebook page and profile were not only used in the initial news report, they were also linked within TV media sources and many others.

While this is not completely a cautionary tale, everyone should be aware that upon a tragic end like this, every phrase on your Facebook profile is 'fair game'.

The good side is that while all of her friends and family still grieve, a cathartic method of coping has been to post on her Facebook page, where all of us affected can sympathize and remember her.

Charles

R. Michelle Green

Wow -- never occurred to me (duh) that the press would link to the page. Yet another thing to consider! Thanks Charles for your insight, and my condolences on your loss...

Devremülk

i like to read your posts. thanks for this one.

R. Michelle Green

thank you, Devremülk, for coming to the site ad reading them! I'm very pleased that George likes them too -- I like working with him on these issues.

Michelle

R. Michelle Green

George, are you still looking for a FB alternative? Diaspora is in private alpha...
http://techcrunch.com/2010/11/25/onesocialweb-appleseed-elgg-insoshi/

George

Michelle:

Yes, still looking for a FB replacement. Alpha version is too buggy for my tastes. Thanks.

George
Editor
http://ivebeenmugged.typepad.com

Alfons Boltjes

Dear all,

This problem has a solution. There is a new community on which you can keep and leave all this just the way you want it. Safe and only for yourself to decide how to use the information on it, it stays yours! You can also keep it available for others for ever!

Check it out on www.yourafterlife.com.

cu around!

R. Michelle Green

Alfons -- thank you for sharing this with us. I see that Amazon is even selling a book that addresses social media options after death. I suppose this is just another area where technology applications plunge ahead of social conventions, mores and laws....

R. Michelle Green

Alfons Boltjes

To George and Charles:

Have a look at www.yourafterlife.com, you can use it and they now even have a special offer: https://www.yourafterlife.com/what-is-yourafterlife/news/read/25344/free-christmas-gift-from-yourafterlife

A Free Eternal Membership!

Warm Regards,

Alfons

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