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What happens to our digital selves after we die?

Posted by: Jemma Puzey

It goes without saying that nowadays our online presence is significant and in turn this generates a considerable amount of data about us; from our email accounts, social media activity, online banking and shopping to our locations being tracked. The information we produce about our daily lives is greatly different to information held about us 20 years ago when online life was limited, and instead we kept our photos in albums, wrote letters and went into branch to complete our banking transactions.

There are a number of services now offering ways to control this online data after we die.

When a person dies physically, they do not die digitally. The Digital Beyond is a company that helps customers “predict and plan for the future of your online account.” It is essentially a comparison site that allows users to browse platforms from memorial websites to posthumous message services, and select their preferred solution. At the more controversial end of the scale are companies such as Liveson, a platform that attaches to a person’s Twitter account and will continue to Tweet as the person after they have died. These platforms are trained by the user whilst they are still alive and then using algorithms, the platform will create tweets in the user’s customary style and post them once the person is deceased. With a tagline that reads, “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting,” Liveson is a fine line between a comforting experience for friends and family and a spine shuddering, sinister artificial intelligence.

A similar company, Tweet Hereafter, focuses on our final words being recorded on Twitter and will publish pre-written posts by the user after they have died. But how much of a substitute can these platforms really be for the real thing? Technology cannot imitate what makes us human, therefore platforms such as these are unnatural and feel a little tasteless and disrespectful towards the deceased. Services like Liveson should be a wake-up call for how our relationship with technology is evolving and even possibly beginning to replace us. 

Social media giant, Facebook, introduced a “legacy feature” last year. The idea is that the user’s account becomes a “Memorialised Account” which is designed to be an area for communal remembrance and grieving by gathering and sharing memories of the deceased user. A Memorialised Account will have a legacy user, requested by the deceased before their death, who can manage the deceased’s profile but with limited access; for example they can not see any private messages that the deceased may receive but they can respond to friend requests, post on the wall and amend profile pictures. QR Memories provides an alternative option, attaching codes to gravestones that can be scanned with a smartphone and take the griever to a web page with content about the deceased which has been provided by the deceased and/or their families. Elizabeth Normadale, sales and marketing director of QR Memories, says the idea is linked to the wish that the deceased be known beyond merely a name and a set of dates.

All of these platforms lead us to increasingly ask – what happens to our online life after we die and who owns all of the information held about us? We now upload pictures, our thoughts, feelings and memories which all remain in cyberspace long after we are gone. How can we ensure that it is our loved ones who are inheriting these just like they inherit our homes and other physical things we leave behind? This issue is fast becoming a legal minefield and will continue to be a new legal focus in the future as our daily lives become ever more digitalised. There is currently no standard practice among online platforms about how digital assets are passed onto heirs.]

A recent survey by YouGov asked people who owned their online data; 36% said Facebook; 20% said next of kin; 17% said no-one and 27% said they didn’t know. This demonstrates that people are not considering where or to whom their data is being passed. 

However, there are options to help control your digital data after your die that hold more legal weight, for example you could leave clear instructions in your will about how you want your digital information dealt with. There is a possibility that it won’t just be sentimental digital material that is lost; monetary value items such as music, domain names, air mails, reward points, PayPal accounts can also be at risk. Companies such as Estate Assist and SecureSafe allow users to store their digital information of value and control who accesses it after they die.

It is plain to see that social media has become so central to our lives that we are creating social media sites for the dead! Do these sites celebrate memories or are they a morbid obsession? Making people immortal and pretending they are still alive surely hampers the grieving process for loved ones. The idea of sharing memories can be cathartic however, doing so constantly on a social media page means you are carrying those memories around everyday and this could be damaging your healing process if you are reliving it, so perhaps we should approach these new platforms with caution.


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