Data of the dead

An ASU researcher tries to grasp the reality of how to best handle the social media accounts of those who have died

Kyleigh Leddy’s sister went missing nearly six years ago, but Leddy sees her whenever she logs into Facebook.

Her sister’s digital presence lives on, crystallized in time, through posts, pictures and videos on social media. She explained this unique attachment to her sister’s Facebook page in a personal essay that won The New York Times’ Modern Love College Essay contest in 2019.

Following the success of Leddy’s article, her family tried to memorialize her sister's account as a result of some of the attention the story garnered. They found they were unable to do so without a formal death certificate, something the family didn’t have as Leddy’s sister was never pronounced dead. 

Leddy elected to keep the account up as is because it was still a good place to remember her sister. 

“You find comfort in being able to remember somebody, and I think that social media is innately still alive,” Leddy said.

But her sister’s Facebook is not the only active account with no one running it, as the number of posthumous accounts continues to rise.

Dead people will soon outnumber the living on Facebook, according to a recent study from the Oxford Internet Institute. It’s estimated that the phenomenon could take 50 years to become a reality. While the people who once created the profiles will cease to exist, their digital selves will live on as part of a new virtual history.

Faheem Hussain, a clinical assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, has conducted research into these digital legacies. Death is inevitable, yet the stigma around the subject has created real obstacles to preserving the sanctity of the data. 

“There are people who have been severely affected with the absence of policy for digital afterlife,” Hussain said.

He began to notice that Facebook was recommending he connect with individuals who had died. He said the experience was disturbing and prompted him to examine the issue from a design perspective. There seemed to be an unwillingness to confront the issue. 

“Conversation should be open ... and frequent,” Hussain said. “It's imperative for the service providers to talk about it openly when we are first opening the accounts.”

This concern prompted Hussain to conduct in-depth interviews with the public to gain a sense of the general perception and expectations for the digital afterlife. He also examined how policies were shifting within individual service providers. 

For example, Facebook has begun asking its users to either add a “legacy contact” to look after a memorialized account or opt to have Facebook delete the account once it becomes aware of someone's death, according to its website

Hussain’s research is an ongoing process. While he hasn’t conducted a wide-ranging, multinational study yet, he said it is in the cards. 

Andrew Maynard, a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the director of the Risk Innovation Lab, said there should be a clear and simple way for social media users to make provisions for what happens to their data. 

“If those provisions aren't made, there needs to be policies put in place either at the company level but ideally also at the societal level,” he said. “And that includes the government level as to what happens to the data, who gets access to it and who doesn't.”

Maynard said that although the answer may be unclear, the conversation around this issue is important to discuss.

“If you want to provide access to the information that you have in your digital register, you need to be explicit about it before you die,” said Katina Michael, a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering

But many people aren’t thinking about their eventual death when they set up social media accounts, and many companies aren’t prompting them to consider it either.

“As we begin to think about how we manage our online presence, we need to think about how that online presence potentially threatens what's important to us or what's important to people that we love and care for,” Maynard said. “That will help us better understand how to manage it.”

Clauses in wills or written record of login information are personal steps that can be taken to ease the process for our loved ones. 

“Having these technologies and these technological footprints aren’t necessarily bad things, but it does create a lot of challenges that we've got to overcome in order to actually use this new capability in positive ways,” Maynard said. 

There are not uniform global standards that exist to govern these policies, which makes it difficult to hold companies accountable, Michael said.

Hussain said many states have some law to address this issue and that there is an act in place to provide a legal safety net for deceased users’ data.

But in regards to the provisions individual companies take, there are no benchmarks or standards in place, Hussain said. Each company’s policy differs.

“Sometimes they're even stricter than access to medical records,” Michael said.

All of this complicates matters for the families of the lost and deceased. While these accounts can be uncomfortable reminders, they can also offer a place of reflection.

Leddy acknowledged the pros and cons associated with keeping the profiles of lost loved ones. Being constantly reminded of dead people can often be triggering and deter the grieving process. But having an ongoing digital presence can be a positive thing, too. 

Following the publication of Leddy’s article, she witnessed an incredibly supportive side of social media. Strangers reached out to her to share their own experiences and offer comfort. 

“There's this fine line between preserving someone's memory and holding on too much,” Leddy said.

Leddy acknowledged a heightened awareness of these issues among younger generations but said a lot of the choices are based on how a company updates its policies with time. 

“There's a lot we haven't really talked about publicly,” she said. “There's a lot of discussions that need to be had about what we want to do with these accounts.”




Reach the reporter at snalcan1@asu.edu or follow @SarahAlcantar on Twitter.

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