Death + the Law Death + the Web Death Ethics Monuments + Memorials

Dead Netizen

There’s been much talk of late about what happens to your online social connections, not to mention your email and all the other ways you exist virtually, after you die. With Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and others there’s you and then there’s virtual you.

As more and more people join the virtual you ranks, the implementation of protocols and practices become necessary when the real you dies.

Yesterday, Twitter announced their new policy for deceased users. Prior to this, they had no policy in place.

In July, the NY Times published a story about what happens to your Facebook account after you die. Facebook’s policies, specifically the ability to “memorialize” someone’s Facebook page, have been in place since October, 2009.

But one size does not fit all as policies and practices vary greatly among the various email and social network providers, making it a confusing maze for those trying to navigate through it after a loved-one’s death. Various sites attempt to sort it all out. But, as technology changes and new social networking and email sites emerge, so too will protocols need to change. In writing this post, I ran across a post discussing the legal ramifications of deceased users and their “digital property”. It seems future lawyers are trying to understand it too—perhaps all the better to eventually litigate it, I imagine.

Think about this: a typical scenario might be a person who has a Facebook, Twitter and Gmail account—and probably a work email too—although I imagine most family member’s are less concerned with work email and understand that companies and organizations have exclusive rights to their employee’s email accounts. Ultimately, however, your virtual fingerprints are everywhere. Gaining access after your death—should someone need or want to—can be potentially confusing and frustrating for everyone. And what if it goes completely against your last wishes? Do you want your family and possibly friends, noodling around in the remains of your virtual life?

All sort of websites have emerged to help you figure out these existential questions and more. Some of the sites, like, are for the living to remember and memorialize the dead. Some sites, like, are virtual vaults that keep usernames and passwords safe until you die and the info is then released to selected friends and family members. And still other sites, like, allow you to craft out messages while you are still alive that will then only be released to friends and family upon your death.

Despite the best efforts of Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and others to address the post-mortem needs of their members and the people who survive them, it’s still an ungainly, swirling, complex mass of legal, moral and ethical issues. It seems progress is being made, but I think it will always be a messy business the more you and virtual you become intertwined and perhaps ultimately, indistinguishable.

2 replies on “Dead Netizen”

I would argue that “you” and “virtual you” are already indistinguishable, and that the idea of “a virtual you” that is separate from your real identity is an antiquated notion. Virtual is real.

Then again, I routinely refer to “the meatspace” and “the matrix.”

Alas, I think I may be showing my age. I still think for many that you and virtual you are still quite separate — but I think it’s because they are older (like me) — and for younger folk (like you our super talented blog master!) they were practically merged from the moment you were born. But hey, didn’t someone say the future is now? Maybe I just need to get more comfortable with this virtual metamorphosis!

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