Facing the loss of a family member or friend is often devastating. Imagine the constant reminder of the dearly departed as they appear through social media on your Facebook Timeline or Google+ Circle, in your Twitter Feed or MySpace stream, or even at work on your LinkedIn profile.
I was reminded in a private message last week that one of the highly respected politicians receiving birthday greetings from me on Facebook had died last year. A quick update to “Happy Birthday in Heaven” hopefully fixed this.
Many wonder about life after death through social media. In reality, there is no such thing as a digital death. This is especially so when the deceased user is received as a “friend recommendation" through an automated program or mutual friends.
From the dark age of sending a simple email or text message to an age of information overload where we publish our entire lives through timelines, circles, or tweets, many social media users provide and tell all. From status updates, photographs and blog posts to complete personal histories, our entire lives have become an open book.
Will your Facebook friends, Twitter followers or those in your Google+ Circle know when you die? With MySpace itself dying a slow death, will anyone notice you gone? As for LinkedIn, a few too many profile views may eventually reveal the fact that you are dead.
As a social media expert with tens of thousands of “friends” spread across several social media networks, one of them — Barry Epstein, of Boca Raton, Fla. — advised me last year that he was closing the accounts of his deceased son. Only aware of Facebook “memorial” policies, I was prompted to investigate the treatment of deceased user’s social media accounts and what is done to preserve, memorialize or delete them following death.
“Social media can be useful for memorializing the deceased,” Epstein told Examiner. “Away from the brief memorial service, people use social media as a way to remember, share their thoughts and to deal with the grief of losing a loved one or friend.”
With more than 1.2 million social media users dying annually, family, friends, social media services and the Internet are left to deal with a deceased user’s digital bits. When we die, who takes control of our social media networks?
“Perhaps a ‘fan page’ or ‘community page’ would be a good alternative to keeping the love alive,” Sharon Gadbois, a social media expert with Social Media Bullies told KSL. “Some people like going through photos of those they care about and to help them remember the good times. This way their life can be celebrated instead of mourned for eternity.”
With more than one billion users worldwide, Facebook was not the first social media service to establish a policy for deceased users but is among the highest in profile because of the way it addressed the issue. Rather than allow a family member to take control of a deceased user’s account, Facebook instead decided to take things a step further and allowed them to be memorialized or deleted entirely.
A memorialized Facebook Timeline preserves the deceased user's online existence so that only confirmed friends can visit their page, view prior status updates or photographs and leave posts of remembrance.
When Facebook converts an account into a memorial, the deceased user is no longer suggested as a friend to others and their Timeline automatically becomes private to everyone but confirmed friends. Personal identifiers and contact information are also removed to prevent hacking and to respect privacy.
To memorialize or delete a Facebook account, a family member or friend completes a special contact form providing proof of death. This can include an obituary, news article or Internet link. Unlike other social media services, Facebook allows non-family members to perform this task, which is helpful in situations where the deceased user's friends are more Internet-savvy than family.
Google+ or Google Plus
Unlike the social media giants of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or LinkedIn, Google provides a number of services including email, blogging and its own version of social media fraternization through Google+.
One of the benefits to having all of Google’s services tied to a single Gmail account is that the policies and procedures of the company generally cover all aspects of an individual’s existence with them. Such is the case when a user passes away. According to Google, everything is handled centrally and concerned parties just need to go through the steps once in order to gain access to an account.
In order to access or deactivate a deceased user’s Google account, the authorized representative of an estate must apply directly to Google. In the strictest of all deceased user policies, one must remember that Google is not just someone's social networking profile, it is access to his or her email, contacts, and everything else associated with a Google account, including Google+.
In a process that consists of two stages, Google requires the authorized representative to provide their full name, physical mailing address, an email address, a photocopy of their government-issued driver’s license or ID card, the Gmail address of the deceased user and a copy of the deceased user’s death certificate.
All requests can be forwarded to Google by fax at 650-644-0358 or by regular mail to: Google Inc. Gmail User Support - Decedents’ Accounts, c/o Google Custodian of Records, 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA 94043.
Following receipt of the request, Google will review it and determine whether an authorized representative can move to the next step of the process by submitting additional material or obtaining legal process including an order from a U.S. court of competent jurisdiction.
After being allowed access to the Google account of a deceased user, the authorized representative can then downgrade the Google+ profile or delete the account entirely.
Similar to the Facebook policy that allows for a deceased user’s account be deleted or memorialized when a family member or friend has passed away, Twitter will work with an “authorized person” of the deceased who has been designated to function on behalf of the estate.
To successfully deactivate the Twitter account of a deceased user, an authorized person must provide the user name or profile page link of the Twitter user, a copy of the death certificate of the deceased user, a copy of the authorized person’s government-issued ID and a signed and notarized statement which includes personal information about the authorized person.
Required information from an authorized person includes his or her first and last name, email address, current contact details, relationship with the deceased, the requested action, a link to any online obituary or a copy of the actual obituary from a newspaper.
All requests can be forwarded to Twitter by fax at 415-222-9958 or by regular postal mail to: Twitter, Inc. c/o: Trust & Safety, 1355 Market St., Suite 900, San Francisco, CA 94103. According to Twitter, all further communication will be conducted through email. Additional concerns can be forwarded to email@example.com.
As one of the oldest social media services around, MySpace has a deceased user policy that is more of a standardized policy of deletion rather than memorializing like Facebook.
To delete a MySpace profile, a family member must contact MySpace via email with proof of death and the user's unique identification number. A username or profile link is generally not acceptable.
"Unfortunately, we can't let you access, edit or delete any of the content or settings on the user's profile yourself, but we'll be sure to review and remove any content you find objectionable," reads the MySpace policy.
In addition, MySpace does not adequately address privacy concerns and may subject the deceased user’s account to data breaches as hackers may attempt to access an account without authorization. Contained on MySpace’s policy page is an admission that anyone with access to the deceased user's email account can simply "retrieve the password through the 'forgot password link' and make necessary changes."
The MySpace policy for deletion is not particularly helpful for older relatives that are not Internet savvy and makes it almost impossible to remove a deceased user’s existence from this social media service.
Easier than the death notification policies of Facebook, Google+, Twitter and MySpace where a family member or friend must make an official request for memorialization or deletion, anyone can notify LinkedIn about the profile of a deceased member.
With more than 200 million members in 200 countries and territories around the globe, LinkedIn is the world's largest professional network of resources. According to their website, LinkedIn will delete the profile of a deceased colleague, classmate or connection upon receipt of proof of death. There is no provision to memorialize the profile of a deceased LinkedIn user.
To delete the profile of a LinkedIn user, a “Verification of Death Form” must be submitted online through DocuSign. Proof of death in the form of a death certificate, obituary, news article or Internet link must be included.
LinkedIn is clear to point out that the registered email address of the deceased member's account must be included. “Without this important piece of information, we will not be able to address your request,” states the website.
"The interactions of a person through social media are a facet of everyday life and supply tangible evidence about what they valued and who they chose to interact with while alive,” Daniel Forrester, author of “Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization” told Examiner. “Digital afterlife is inevitable. It allows survivors a way to celebrate and remember."
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