When her 21-year-old daughter died in a sledding accident in early 2007, Pam Weiss had never logged onto Facebook. Back then, it was used almost exclusively by the young, like her daughter Amy, a student at UCLA. But Weiss knew her daughter had an account, so in her grief she turned to the social-networking site to look for photos. She found what she was looking for, and more — she was soon communicating with her daughter’s many friends, sharing memories and even piecing together a blueprint of things Amy had hoped to do in the future through posts she’d written. “It makes me feel good that Amy had a positive effect on so many people, and I wouldn’t have had a clue if it hadn’t been for Facebook,” says Weiss.
Like a growing number of people mourning loved ones, Weiss had tapped into one of the most powerful troves of memories going: their online presence. Though Facebook shut Amy’s account after three months (Weiss had copied much of it), the site later decided to keep deceased users’ profiles up. “We first realized we needed a protocol for deceased users after the Virginia Tech shooting, when students were looking for ways to remember and honor their classmates,” says Facebook spokesperson Elizabeth Linder. The site responded by creating a “memorial state” for profiles of deceased users, in which certain information, such as status updates and group affiliation, is removed.
Other sites are also grappling with the thorny question of what to do with users’ information after they die. As more and more people carry out their lives online, and as older generations make the digital move, there’s less being stored away in dusty attics for loved ones to discover and hang onto. Letters have become e-mails; diaries have morphed into blogs; photo albums have turned virtual and come with tags. The pieces of our lives we put online can feel as eternal as the Internet itself, but how much of our virtual identity actually lives on after we die? (Read “Your Facebook Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.”)
For now, that all depends on which sites you use. Social-networking sites tend to keep accounts up. Facebook’s memorialized profiles are restricted to the user’s friends, who can continue posting comments; relatives may request to have a profile removed altogether. (They cannot, however, gain access, which means users’ private messages are kept as just that.) Rival MySpace has adopted a similar policy, but does not restrict viewing, which has inspired one man to create MyDeathSpace.com, which aggregates profiles of the deceased. LiveJournal, one of the first blog providers, has an informal policy of freezing accounts but keeping them online. Photo-storage site Flickr, too, keeps accounts up; if any photos were tagged as private, however, Flickr won’t let friends or family into the account to access them.
E-mail doesn’t always disappear with you either. Yahoo! Mail’s rule is to keep accounts private: “The commitment Yahoo! makes to every person who signs up for an account is to treat their online activities as confidential, even after their death,” says spokesman Jason Khoury. Court orders sometimes overrule that. In 2005, relatives of a Marine killed in Iraq sued to gain access to his e-mail account. A judge sided with the family, but instead of turning over the account’s password, Yahoo! copied the e-mails onto a CD. Hotmail now allows family to order a CD as long as they can supply proof of death and proof of relationship. Gmail requires the same proof, as well as the copy of an entire e-mail sent from the deceased to the petitioner.
If that sounds like a lot of trouble to put your loved ones through, you can plan ahead. Firms like Legacy Locker, Asset Lock and Deathswitch now help people plan for their death by collecting details like your passwords while you’re living. Of course, you could just write your passwords on a piece of paper. But as Legacy Locker notes in its publicity material, you’ll constantly have to change them and add more as you open new accounts. For about $30 annually or $300 for a lifetime, the San Francisco–based site will manage account information (which it heavily encrypts), store files, designate beneficiaries and write “legacy letters” to be sent out after your death. The firm checks in with two verifiers — people you’ve designated to confirm your death and produce your death certificate — before disseminating your online assets.
On top of passwords and files, Deathswitch, which is based in Houston, also suggests you store funeral instructions, love notes and “unspeakable secrets.” It then regularly sends you e-mail prompts to verify that you’re still alive, at a frequency you decide upon. After a series of unanswered prompts, it will assume you’re dead, turn on the switch and release your messages to beneficiaries. One message is free; for more, the company charges $19.95 a year. “Digital legacy is at its best misunderstood and at worst not thought about,” says Legacy Locker founder Jeremy Toeman, who came up with the idea for his firm on a flight, imagining what would happen to his many Web domains if the plane crashed. “I would be surprised if, five years from now, it’s not common for people to consider their digital assets alongside their wills.”
By GAËLLE FAURE Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009. (www.time.com)