Watching Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday’s ‘Inside Facebook’ (BBC2) a few weeks ago got me thinking. Facebook now extends from ‘before the cradle to beyond the grave’. Recently, my online friends’ status updates have announced the happy news of pregnancies (complete with scan photos) and sad news about the loss of a loved one and the funeral arrangements. How much do Facebook’s 800 million users really want to share, and what kind of digital mark will they leave when their physical selves cease to exist?
Perhaps BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ will become obsolete in a few generations’ time. Internet-savvy genealogists will simply be able to log onto Facebook, YouTube or Twitter where their ancestors’ lives will be pristinely documented from birth to death.
What actually happens to your digital footprint when you pass on? Most users have probably never even considered it.
Each of the online communities have their own ways of dealing with the death of their users- Facebook
gives your survivors the option to close down your account, or curiously to ‘memorialise’ it, creating a digital epitaph on which all your online ‘friends’ can pay their respects. Twitter
allows your ‘digital executor’ to download a copy of your public tweets before closing down your account. YouTube
allows your heir or power of attorney control of your account and all its content. But perhaps most disturbing is Hotmail’s deceased user policy
- once the executor produces a copy of the death certificate and proves their connection to the deceased, they will be sent a list of their existing contacts as well as a copy of all the email messages stored on the account.
Whilst access to the deceased’s contacts may be required to inform people of the bereavement, something about this worries me. Access to somebody’s email account differs intensely from opening your loved one’s post to administer their affairs. Would your email contacts be happy with somebody other than you being privy to your correspondence? Would you be comfortable with your next of kin probing your password-protected emails?
This is something to consider when you appoint the executor of your will or your power of attorney or to include in the document itself. As well as burial plans and bequeathing your property, you should make sure to consider what you want to happen to your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and email accounts to make sure that the digital mark you leave reflects your wishes.