In an article entitled Deaths Pose Test for Facebook, the WSJ outlines the problems that arise when a Facebook user dies. Jo White and I proposed a workshop or presentation on the subject to a conference with the title of this post (perhaps that is why we were rejected), but the automatic memorialization of pages struck us as odd. The ways in which friends and family interact with the page upon memorialization is fascinating. Friends will continue to converse with the deceased, often in a more intimate way giving new insight into intimate relationships, and will often build a new form of community around the deceased making or enriching connections.
People have always left memories with those they knew, as well as artifacts that stir up memories. The deaths referenced in the article are teen suicides, and the question is whether username/passwords should transfer with other forms of property upon death. At this point, family may either live with the memorial page, which some appreciate a great deal, or close the account. The digital object that represents some aspect of the deceased person cannot be altered by the family. Probate law has defaults that must be amended if an individual wants to go in a different direction. Although teenagers rarely have a will, giving all users an opt-out for memorialization may indicate the level of control and presence one wishes to exert after they cannot manage their FB page any longer.
This is of little comfort to parents trying to understand their children’s lives and deaths. But, the idea of my parents sifting through my Google account is mortifying, especially if I were gone. Yahoo faced a similar issue in 2004 when parents of a marine killed in battle wanted access to their son’s email account. Yahoo will not give out passwords to anyone but the account holder, unless ordered to by a court. So the parents sought a court order, verifying their identity and relationship. Facebook does not require this level of verification (they do have some steps in place for reporting and requests for next of kin). AOL only requires proof of kinship and death be faxed in order to gain access to an account.
In light of the strong possibility that my family or imaginary future spouse may someday be able to access my accounts, consider this an amendment to my will (which I should get around to writing): access to online accounts operated by me shall be denied to any person, including my next of kin or any other individual or institution, upon my death. Any account that represents a form of private correspondence should be deleted upon notification of my death. Any public account may be maintained financially (I have no idea why anyone would want to do this) but the content created by me may not be edited or altered in anyway. These accounts may be deleted upon the request of my next of kin. This statement cannot be nullified by any later consent to Terms of Service for any site or online service. I assure you I will not read those Terms of Service and true consent was not obtained.
I wonder what the TOS are for this site…