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Who is going to look after your social media profiles after you die?


Dying without having laid out any plans at all for your digital content will make it complex for others (Picture: Getty Images)

A locked smartphone and three previously very active social media accounts was one of the last things my friend expected to deal with, after her close relative died from Covid-19.

One of the accounts had an active RSS feed, which meant it was automatically posting content from another account – in this case, a news provider – making it look like the deceased was still active on the site. Should my friend have just deleted everything? Could she? 

Once the funeral was over (which was streamed online and only attended by a few in-person, due to the pandemic), the task of going through his possessions, and also cancelling his online subscriptions, bank accounts, transfers and memberships started taking priority. 

But where were the passwords to his mobile, with the 2000 plus pictures on it, and what about the one for his Facebook account? How much money was left on his PayPal account, and what had happened on e-Bay regarding that recent purchase? 

Dying has changed, for the sheer complexity of our living. Questions from patients and their loved-ones about social media digital legacies after death started trickling into my palliative care clinics, hospice visits and ward rounds a few years ago. Many colleagues have reported this, too. 

Queries like, ‘Doctor, slightly random question, but what does actually happen to my Facebook when I die?’ 

And since Covid-19 has hit us, these questions continue, featuring in discussions on social media itself – often after a quite sudden and unexpected death.

This is not something I really learned about formally in medical training. But after attending a Digital Legacy Conference a few years ago, the implications of much of our lives moving into the digital space soon became more apparent. Death and dying are very much part of that digital life and need a lot of thought. 

Consider these figures. If Facebook retains all of its deceased users, its own digital graveyard could contain 4.9bn people by 2100. 

A couple of years ago when Twitter announced that it would delete inactive accounts, there was a huge outcry. Reacting swiftly, the social media platform announced it would create a way to memorialise dead people’s accounts for posterity. 

This conversation has received renewed attention, at a time when the pandemic is limiting physical interaction and people are socialising more online. 

Several years ago, a young patient surprised me when she described her panic about what she should do with her social media and online accounts prior to her imminent death. Should she switch off and delete them in advance, or leave it all open? 

If Facebook retains all of its deceased users, its own digital graveyard could contain 4.9bn people by 2100

Would it bring solace or pain for friends, acquaintances and families to see her photos and the things she had liked during her living moments? Should she ‘unlike’ bands that may not pass the test of time, so that her friends – who would inevitably move on and find cooler music – did not see her through the prism of her twenty-something-year-old choices? 

Unsurprisingly, I found these questions impossible to answer but fascinating to discuss. I started thinking about my own online legacy. 

My work involves a lot of advance care planning conversations, and I talk to my patients about the importance of thinking about a time when they are too unwell to speak, about the dying phase and also the time after death. 

But digital legacy had never really featured. One of the conversations I had regarding social media with a man who had young children involved the process of creating video content for special moments in their lives in the future, when he would no longer be alive. 

We both expressed that even thinking about the physical act of filming such messages seemed emotionally challenging, and his wife told me later that she found his resolve in doing this unbearable to witness. He went ahead, recorded a host of short messages, and one day these videos will have significant meaning to those who watch them on wedding and graduation days. 

If good, comprehensive end of life care is about making people feel more normal and helping them to conquer the demons of advanced, incurable illness, then surely this new digital connectivity must be addressed. Our social media presences are an integral property, a diary, an album, a life story with an address. 

Legacy therapy, where patients are asked to look back to important parts of their lives and think about them, has an important role to play. But even after death, shared moments including photographs from 10-15 years ago, may be of great importance to those we leave behind. 

What is and was important to you? Music, photos, videos? Do you prefer your phone to be locked into perpetuity after you die, or would you want others to access photos and videos on it? If the answer is yes, you need to put plans in place for this to happen. 

When a university friend died recently, I was unable to go to his funeral. His only social media presence was a donation page, and I found myself going there, as a reflective online place to remember Andy by. But where could I go in future? 

Our lives and our personhoods are increasingly linked to the places of our online presence, and a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter page can take on a whole new meaning after someone has gone. 

Taking it even further, certain apps allow you to prospectively write status updates even after your death, and some very organised individuals can even plan birthday messages for significant others into perpetuity. Facebook has a large Question & Answer section on memorialising an account and how to set up a legacy contact. 

So, how ‘not to die’ in this digital age? Well, dying without having laid out any plans at all for your digital content will make it complex for others. Help make things easier for those who remain. 

There are websites that can help with think lists and bullet points regarding the more common issues. Even the more obscure places where we might find online possessions are covered, including reminders not to forget your digital income sources, such as vouchers, discount codes etc. We have even had to remind people about sometimes quite large funds of money held in betting apps, for instance. 

You can elect legacy contacts quite easily, for many social media accounts. But when you do, what will you ask them to do with all that data way into the future after you have gone? 

The explosion of social media has given us many new areas to think about when planning for that time when the physical ‘us’ is no longer there. So, think carefully before you like that Justin Bieber fan page. It may be for a lot longer than you think.

Professor Mark Taubert will be talking about his work and advance care planning at Green Man Festival on Sat 21st August, in conversation with James Norris and Jude Rogers.


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