Why you, your company need to think about digital death

May 16, 2011

Social media

Are you and your company/clients prepared for digital death? (Image credit: voices.allthingsd.com)










What happens when we die? It’s one of the oldest, and most debated, questions in the book. Which is why it seems just a tad bit ironic that as prevalent as the Internet has been for the last 15-plus years, people are just now starting to talk about another death-related question — What happens to our digital identity when we die?

As communicators, we all feel comfortable with analogies. So try this one on for size. Crisis plan is to a living will as updated crisis plan including digital/social media is to deciding what happens to our digital information before we die.

Research the topic of digital death for a while and you’ll find one overarching theme — there is no standard rule on how to handle it. Not for people or for companies. If you were planning to launch a startup, digital death would be a good area to explore.

In fact, going forward, that may end up being one of the biggest questions we have to answer. Who’s responsible for deciding what happens to a person’s digital data when he/she passes away? Is it the person? Or the company whose sites/apps they used? The answer is clear as mud. But it’s likely to be both.

Why is digital death a concern?

I used to work for telecom company. While there, I remember hearing a story about a customer who passed away. The company followed its standard process and eventually deleted the person’s account. A few days after, the customer’s mom called up begging and pleading for the company to help her get her son’s voicemail recording back because it was the only way she could still hear his voice.

Online or offline, people need to grieve when someone dies. It’s how they remember. It’s how they cope. And yesterday’s vociemail greeting could easily be today’s Facebook message, chat transcript or blog comment. Managing this online information when someone passes away has serious implications for both the person who dies and the brand that controls the platform where the user’s information resides.

  • Person: Think will, executor and power of attorney here. If you die and haven’t made arrangements for how your digital records should be handled, you leave your loved ones to have to deal with the companies who manage the sites where your online conversations reside. Their policies aren’t uniform and it can be a tough process to have to wade through at a time when you’re trying to grieve. Plus, you lose the right to determine who gets access to what part of your online identity or to hide any digital skeletons in your closet.
  • Company: You don’t want your brand or clients to be in the situation my former employer was in with the deleted voicemail greeting. As you’ll see later when we discuss how some of the major e-mail platforms are handling digital death, mismanaging this type of delicate situation can lead to litigation and negative PR. The companies’ responsibilities are vague when it comes to issue, and many don’t have any type of policy to address it. But the fact is, if you are a brand that has any type of online platform people use where they submit information, eventually those users will die. And there is a good possibility some of those users friends or family will want access to the information they shared on your digital assets.

How do companies handle digital death today?

Some of the most prominent players in the social network and e-mail space provide examples of how digital death is being handled in the early stages of the conversation (thanks for the assist, thedigitalbeyond.com). It is important to note that currently, the majority of companies don’t address the digital death issue in their privacy policies or terms of service, thus leaving themselves open to potentially sticky situations down the road.

  • Facebook allows your heirs to determine if your account should be deleted or memorialized. Facebook requires a death certificate or an article that confirms a person’s death to memorialize their account. A memorialized account no longer shows up in Facebook search, but is still available to confirmed friends, who can post memories on the person’s wall. Facebook also offers a download your information link that lets you download a copy of photos, videos, wall posts, messages, friends lists and other content.
  • Twitter will remove a dead user’s account and help compile an archive of his/her public tweets.
  • GMail will give you access to a deceased user’s account if you provide a death certificate, proof you’ve received e-mail from the account and proof you have legal authority over the estate. Interesting that Gmail is actually referring to the person’s offline wishes about the estate to effect what happens with the account.
  • YouTube will let you access the account of a user who has passed away if you provide the account name, a death certificate and proof of power of attorney over the YouTube account.
  • Yahoo! takes a different stance on death and actually deletes the account of a user once the company finds out the person has died. The e-mail provider has been taken to task for this stance, including in Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat, where Friedman chronicles the story of a father whose 20-year-old son died serving overseas. Yahoo! refused to turn the son’s e-mail account over to the father, so he took the company to court and won access to his son’s e-mails.

Additional resources

If you find this topic as intriguing as I did, here are some additional resources for you to consider:

Is digital death even on your company’s/clients’ radar? Have you prepared for your digital death? How do you think companies should manage this issue — are you a fan of the Facebook or Yahoo! way?

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WorldWithout_Me 5 pts

Hi Justin! Interesting article on an interesting topic! You are right in saying yesterday's voicemail is today's facebook messages, chat or blogs. Preserving our digital life to be passed on as part of our legacy and memories for our family has become essential for highly social and active netizens. Many don't realize its importance yet but the topic is slowly being explored and written about through blog articles like this one and in the news. Thanks!

DannyBrown 2252 pts

You know, mate, this is an awesome topic and, like you say, one that companies need to think about.

I know, personally, I have a video post ready to go live on my blog (haha, nice conflict of words there!) should I not wake up one morning (my wife will post). I'll update that each year, to try stay kinda current.

But interesting to see what business will do with employee deaths and their online presence if they're key stakeholders or personnel. Great conversation starter!

JGoldsborough 234 pts

DannyBrown Thanks for stopping by, DB. Here's to hoping we don't have to see that video anytime soon. But that is an interesting way to manage this issue personally.

Professionally, companies have to think about these things no matter how uncomfortable the conversation. All it takes is one major snafu to find yourself in a PR nightmare and what's worse, unable to help a family connect with some of the information the loved one they just lost shared online.

joebertino 154 pts

This is so morbid to say, but I find this topic absolutely fascinating. Mostly, I suspect, because no one ever talks about it. I also find it interesting because my digital life, in many ways, is so very different than my physical existence. What would happen? How would people react? Twitter? Facebook?

I would think that most digital/social companies would need to be very clear about their policies. I can only imagine the PR nightmare a mismanaged death could cause.

Interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing, Justin.

JGoldsborough 234 pts

joebertino Hey, Joe. Thanks for stopping by. PR nightmares are definitely a possibility here. Especially since there are no standards with digital death, which I still find hard to believe. This issue seems especially applicable for pharma and healthcare companies working with patients. But I researched a few different patient advocate websites like Caring Bridge and couldn't find any mention of how they handle death in their terms of use.

There are a lot of startup companies popping up in this area lately. Check out The Digital Beyond. Very helpful info. Cheers.

joebertino 154 pts

JGoldsborough Yes, a standard is a must. I'll definitely check out that site, although it kinda creeps me out.

MichaelBurns 5 pts

Great stuff as usual, Justin. I recommend people also investigate the terms of service for photo and blog sites such as Flickr (maybe included in Yahoo!'s TOS?), PhotoBucket, Tumblr, WordPress and Google in general. Readers should check anywhere they've ever lived online, really, except MySpace, perhaps. ;)

joebertino 154 pts

MichaelBurns Ha, MySpace has its own death certificate to worry about.

JGoldsborough 234 pts

joebertino MichaelBurns No doubt.

JGoldsborough 234 pts

MichaelBurns Thanks for dropping by, Mike. The SXSW podcast above is really interesting. A couple of people bring up the point of digital skeletons in closet and that is definitely something to think about. Put another way, have you shared content online you don't want certain people to see? And if so, why did you share it online? But anyway, what I think is more likely is you want people close to you to have certain content when you pass. And that is a solid reason to think about this.

MySpace? MySpace. Hmm, never heard of it :).