Postmortem Social Media (a.k.a. virtual zombies)

For millennia people have asked the question “what happens to us when we die?”

While the larger spiritual question will continue to be debated, the question about what happens to our on-line data and presence is more recent, and also more tractable.

Until very recently little thought has been given to this issue. Accounts would continue until subscriptions lapsed, the website shut down, or the account was closed for inactivity.

This has lead to some rather creepy results. I have lost some friends over the last few years, but I continue to be haunted by their unquiet spirits, which remind me of their birthdays, ask me to suggest other friends for them, and generally keep bobbing in my virtual peripheral vision.

Many social media sites do have a process for dealing with accounts after the death of their owners, but they are cumbersome and I have never actually seen them used. Generally, they are only engaged postmortem, by the family of the deceased. Assuming that they don’t have the passwords to the account, they need to contact the provider in writing and provide proof that they are a relative and of the death of the account’s owner.

Google has an interesting idea that I would like to see other sites adopt. They have set up the “Google Inactive Account Manager”  which allows the user to specify what will happen in advance. The user specifies what length of inactivity should be taken as a sign of death. Once that is triggered, Google contacts the user using secondary email accounts and phone numbers, if available, to make sure this was not just a long vacation or a loss of interest. If there is no response to that, then the Inactive Account Manager kicks in.

It notifies a list of people that you specify that this has happened. You have the option of having your data packaged up and sent to some or all of those people. Finally, you may have it delete your account, or leave it available but closed as a memorial.

This may not be the perfect implementation of this concept, but it is an important step.

So please, set up your digital will, and lets put a stop to the digital zombie apocalypse.