When my friend Heather committed suicide in 2014, she left in her absence a heap of digital remains. She had deleted her Facebook account, but left up her Instagram, Linkedin and Twitter. These surviving versions of her—respectively whimsical, industrious and absurd—were like ghosts that haunted the web and forced me to confront the idea of death in digital spaces.
In the rare moments that we think about death, we don't usually consider whether our digital selves will survive it. When Heather died, one of the hardest things to reconcile was the sudden absence of her frequent posts, the stream of links to articles and selfies. The last place I talked to Heather was over Facebook Messenger, a few days before she died. I asked her how she was doing. I know she read it, thanks to Facebook's 'read' receipts, but she never responded. I think about that a lot, that our last moments "together" were alone on that platform.
With her Facebook profile gone, a few of her other friends and I started a Facebook group to remember her; a Facebook product designer later told me this is a common grieving process across the platform.
The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine captures “dead” webpages, but how does the internet deal with the detritus of dead users? When a person dies, members of their family go to their house to deal with their belongings, but online, where we've all accumulated a great mass of photos, videos and writing, it's technology companies that must decide what stays and what goes.
I'm a user experience designer at a tech company so my job is to anticipate different use cases of a product and potential emotional reactions by users. Heather's death made me wonder how my colleagues at my favorite social media sites design for a user's demise. I wanted to know what Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn would do when I die. Is there a digital equivalent of cremation—an easy way to make my accounts disappear, replaced with a notification reading “Here once Caroline posted”? Some people leave instructions for their funeral, but I wanted to know how I could make plans for my own digital remains. I wanted to know how I could make plans for my own digital remains, so I reached out to the companies and explored their FAQs for answers.
What I discovered was that most companies have given little thought to what to do with their users when they die, and those that have haven't reached a consensus.
Death online, like in real life, can be a difficult topic for conversation. “Designing for death” isn't a product design specialty. The vocabulary that companies use to talk about death online is itself telling of the disorganized state of the conversation. When talking about a deceased user inside of a system, Google refers to the account as “inactive,” while Facebook talks about “legacy” and “remembering" and Twitter simply refers to it bluntly as "shutting down an account." For survivors of the real-life dead, this disparate approach can be emotional and confusing.
Neither Twitter nor LinkedIn have a way for me to tell them what I want to happen to my account when I eventually shuffle on. They will allow an immediate family member or designated member of the estate to shut down an account, but neither platform has a way to mark the account obviously "dead"—you can't change the Twitter "verified" blue check mark to a black R.I.P.
If you do choose to shutter a dead relative's account, there are mountains of paperwork to file, all of which requires legal documents like your ID and the deceased’s death certificate. I tried to imagine what it would be like for my mother to scan my death certificate to shut down my Twitter. It's not an easy process for a person in mourning, but it does prevent "this person's dead, kill their account" from being used falsely to harass someone. That’s the toss up, between systems security and emotional safety.
Google does let you plan for death with something called “inactive account manager.” Reflective of a western culture that is famous for its reticence to deal with death in the open, Google refuses to use the word "dead." Here's the description for how 'inactive account' works on the page where you can set it up:
What should happen to your photos, emails and documents when you stop using your account? Google puts you in control.
You might want your data to be shared with a trusted friend or family member, or, you might want your account to be deleted entirely. There are many situations that might prevent you from accessing or using your Google account. Whatever the reason, we give you the option of deciding what happens to your data.
Using Inactive Account Manager, you can decide if and when your account is treated as inactive, what happens with your data and who is notified.
For Google, you're not deceased, you're just away from your computer for a very long, long time.
Facebook is the only platform that deals with death robustly. It has design teams specifically tasked with handling such hard to engineer topics as “Compassion” and “Memorialization,” which may explain why it is seriously considering what to do about death.
Facebook gives you options for what you want to happen to your account when you die—you can choose that it be deleted or memorialized. If memorialized, the profile becomes a digital altar, a place to revisit and remember a person online. The account can no longer be logged into, is changed to say "Remembering" on it, and no longer pops up in "People You May Know" or in a birthday reminder. Family and friends can post openly on the deceased’s wall and still tag them in photos, but can't get access to private messages.
The profile enters a state between active and passive. No notifications or new posts will ever appear in the News Feed timeline, but people can still post and comment on the profile itself. Users can select an 'inheritor' for their Facebook profile, an executor to oversee their online legacy post death. The inheritor, or "legacy contact," can accept new friend requests, update the profile and cover photo, and write a memorial message.
Vanessa Callison-Burch, Facebook's product manager of the memorialization team, told me the company introduced legacy contacts as a result of customer feedback. "A mom asked if she could change her daughter’s profile photo, which was of a cute fish. A dad joined Facebook after his son passed away because his son’s friends were sharing photos and memories, and he asked to be added as a friend to son’s account," she said. "The challenge for Facebook is that we hear these stories that are poignant, but we aren’t in the position to act on behalf of [his son]. It was thinking through those requests and thinking about how to serve the community of friends and family."
Like everything else in our lives, online, death has become much more open and public. There needs to be a way to grapple with the public identities we create, and the reality of what happens to them when those profiles are left behind, in death. Online memorialization sites and profiles are important because it creates an emotional space within widely used social spaces, and that emotion is a part of the social community. We can grieve alone and together, and we can do it online, and we should.
I still follow Heather’s accounts on Twitter. There’s a kind of comfort in that, knowing I will always be able to access accounts she used as semi-public diaries. And because those accounts bring her friends together, I've been able to talk to some of her friends I never met and share stories about her.
I wish though that there were better ways to display grief on social media—a button or the ability to change the background color on my profile pages, the way we wear black to mourn IRL. Wearing black while mourning is a cultural rite, not just to respect the dead, but a way to signal to the community that a death has occurred within your family or network. On Facebook, every day is a happy bright blue. What if we could change it to another another color as a subtle signal of our emotional state?
Without better tools for displaying my grief in public, when Heather died, I turned to email, writing a note to my close circle of friends to let them know I was in pain. "I found out two days ago a dear friend of mine from undergrad committed suicide," I wrote. "I'm pretty shaken by it and I am not myself right now."
Facebook recently gave us the ability to be marked safe during an emergency, what about marking, 'I don’t feel fine'? A way to signal to others that it might be a good idea to reach out and check in on me would have been ideal .
In the past few years, thinking about death online has become fashionable and there are plenty of products out there designed to help you do so. (Since 2010, a small corner of the internet has even celebrated "Digital Death Day.") I was especially interested in a ‘digital inheritance site’ called Safe Beyond. Inspired by his wife’s brain cancer, the CEO Moran Zur started this remembering site as a way for users, who were dying, to leave behind passwords, mementos, videos, and messages to particular friends or family members. The user can designate when and where these videos or files are released and to who.
Safe Beyond is not alone. The Digital Beyond, a website dedicated to our digital life after death, keeps a running list of the services available to help us plan for our digital demise. There are dozens.
But how does interacting with the dead change our relationship to them, and our ability to move on? What does it feel like to be a daughter receiving messages from a deceased mother, not knowing when and where or even how many digital mementos she will be receiving and when? As a designer, I wonder whether maybe that extended digital connection might ultimately do more harm than good, potentially impeding the healing process.
Ultimately I settled on writing a digital will. I decided that I am leaving my sister every single one of my passwords and digital keys. I racked my brain to consider every bill I had set up as digital payment and finding every loose end that might be floating around online. Aside from my books and clothes, pretty much everything I own is digitized. In my will, I tell my sister that after death my preference for my digital identity is for her to do whatever she needs to help her heal. I also left her instructions for how to build a Squarespace site and how to access my Twitter data, just in case.
As a designer, confronting digital death is a mixture of the mechanical and the emotional, a struggle between what fits the company and what is empathetic for the user. Ultimately, grief is an incredibly personal thing and thus incredibly hard to address with one-size-fits-all features.
Thinking about what would I leave behind if I had time to plan or what my post-mortem Facebook page would look like feels odd. Being in my twenties, it’s hard to really confront death as a part of my journey.
But I can't help thinking about something Heather's sister told me after she died: she said that she would do anything for a recording of Heather’s voice. Heather’s voicemail was just the standard robot voice reading back her number. Planning for our deaths is not just about our "legacies" but for the sake of all the people we leave behind.
This is part of our week-long series on the future of death.
Caroline Sinders is an interactive artist, researcher, interaction designer and game designer based in Brooklyn and, occasionally, New Orleans.