Separating the living from the dead on Facebook

In a previous post, I looked into how we group our friends on a day to day basis depending on interests, ideology, personality and our relationship to them. This doesn’t occur to the same degree in our online communities, because it’s more convenient not to and platforms are not yet designed to accommodate nuances in our social graph.

In real life, we also compartmentalise the ways in which we honour our dead.

Recently I attended a school reunion. This is the sort of event that I would ordinarily avoid, but it was a special occasion. My brother and I were both pupils at the same school for many years. Following the news of his death, they elected to hold a chapel service and unveil a memorial plaque in his name at their annual old boys and old girls day.

The service was deferential and took place in the darkened, quiet, solemn environment of the chapel. Prayers were offered, sympathies and reminisces were shared. And then… the congregation headed outside to the lawns where the sun was conveniently shining, to mingle and sip on Pimms while consuming delicious indulgent treats such as strawberries with cream and chocolate cake.

Shrines, graves, areas of worship, significant landmarks provide havens for reflection and commemoration. As a society, we assign times when a community unites to remember thofacebook-memorialization-afterlife-digitalse who have died. Through events, rituals and designated locations, we have times to mourn or reflect and times to live in the present.

Yet our online lives do not reflect this reality and I suspect this is why some people find it difficult when they continue to see a ghostly presence of their deceased friends on social media – on their friends list, tagged post-mortem activity, or automated suggestions in their newsfeeds.

None of the mainstream social networks allow people to separate profiles of deceased friends or acquaintances from their living present-day active ones. Relatives of those who have died might have the option of closing their accounts or (in the case of Facebook) continuing the account but memorialising it. Of course, few people are likely to be aware that memorialisation options even exist, and if they do, the options are fairly black and white.

These limited options do not do justice to the memory of those who have passed away. Nor do they assist our need for ritual to remember them. Personally, I think there’s a huge opportunity for social media platforms to develop separate community spaces designed specifically to commemorate those who have died, where the network connections of the deceased can reflect on past memories together.

Doing this would enable this type of memorial activity to be separate to other day to day social communication with still living connections, connections who may otherwise have no association with those being remembered.

Birthdays, important dates or events in the deceased’s history could be marked in a separate, sincere and respectful environment, fostering a quality of discussion that is more personal and relevant to those who were part of their life. It would  help to ameliorate the awkwardness that death often evokes in other day to day conversations with the living.

Lastly, by introducing separate commemoration areas on social networks, we would publicly acknowledge a person’s death on these relatively new platforms. In a previous age – and today still – a person’s passing was published in a newspaper or community annals to record that person’s existence and history in records.

Currently, anyone who didn’t know of my brother’s death would have no way of knowing via his social existence. He doesn’t show up in Facebook search given his account is memorialised. This is surely restricting the opportunity for greater engagement in the future, when members from extended communities want to reminisce or pass on messages of condolence. In an age when individuals are connecting and searching for connections online, this type of status omission will become more striking by its absence, over time.

What happens to Google email & online information when someone dies?

When people lose someone close to them, they frequently seek to find out more about what they were thinking or doing before they died. It’s as though they are trying to get a complete sense of the person and how they related to everyone else and the world around them.

Accessing secure information such as email is one way that mourners have sought to do this. However until recently, Google has restricted the ability of family members to see account information of the relatives who have died. It has required a legal process. The company has stated that their focus is to consider the privacy of users who sign up to their services – whether living or dead.

This changed in April 2013 when Google announced that their users are now able to nominate a next of kin or someone close to them which allows them access their account data if the account has been inactive for a period of three or more months. It’s called Google Inactive Manager. This will potentially be an enormous comfort for families trying to delve into their loved ones’ histories, sparking memories as well as a greater understanding of who they were. But what are the consequences? Could it in fact open Pandora’s box?

Why family members may want access to your emails and information

Earlier this year, my folks and I visited an army barracks in Catterick, UK to see some soldiers that my brother, DBS, helped to recruit to his Battalion. It was a good day, meeting some of the officers that he served with and finding out more about the customs, traditions and the way of life that he became part of.

Chatting with one of the officers over lunch, he told me that one of the most common questions that families ask when dealing with the news that they have lost someone while on active duty is “did he or she receive my parcel?” They want to know if their son, daughter, spouse or sibling knew that they were in their thoughts and were loved. Even if the recipient hadn’t had a chance to consume or open the package, their families are relieved and grateful if they know it was received. The gift symbolises their act of thinking about and loving them.

I was immediately struck by this conversation and could relate to what the offer had said. When I was informed of my brother’s death, my first response was “did he know that I loved him?” not long followed by “but I haven’t sent him his parcel,” a box of goodies that I’d bought a few days prior but hadn’t yet mailed.  It is a deeply held regret.

By contrast, I knew that my brother had thought of me. Two days later a postcard arrived from him that had taken some time to arrive from overseas, telling me not to worry and that he and his boys were well trained and prepared. He would see me soon. I could hear his voice as I read it and I felt a combination of being elated because I had received his thoughtful message and devastated because its timing was like a punch in the stomach.

I had sent DBS several emails in the month prior to his death to his Google gmail account. However, because of the nature of his work, I wasn’t sure that he had received them. He hadn’t replied. Army representatives at his repatriation and funeral, tried to assure me that he may have read them. “Camps often have internet”, they said. “Perhaps he was able to check into his account between duties”.

It wasn’t something that I was able to find out definitively from Google though. Initial enquiries by the MOD (Military of Defence) and ourselves to access his account were rebutted.

DBS was old fashioned in his approach to communicating with friends. He wrote pen on paper letters and mailed them to friends and family. By contrast, I preferred online forms of communication such as email and social and now believe as a result, that a significant period of my personal history has been lost.

By committing his words down on a card, I had a record of his thoughts for me. They were there in black and white. In my initial stages of grief, not knowing whether or not he had received my correspondence meant I had no guarantee — for a while — that he knew mine for him.

Respecting someone’s privacy while managing a digital estate

In military life, it’s a common ritual to send parcels and mail to men and women in the field. Increasingly though in our digital age, emails and notes through social networking platforms have primarily become our means of communicating, symbols if you like, that convey we’re thinking of others. Given this trend, it’s no wonder that we want to see these sent and received messages from behind a username and password.

In an earlier post, I mentioned how our family wanted to respect DBS’s privacy when handling data stored on his laptop with our desire to find out more about him. We did this by asking a third party to look through its contents, separating the information he would have wanted us to see from the notes and conversations that he would likely preferred we didn’t.

We would have applied the same practice to his email handling if we had been allowed to. This is certainly something I would recommend to families going through this experience of looking through email data of someone who has died, whether they access this information via the Google Inactive Manager or have obtained the right to read it through as the result of a legal process.

Being able to access a deceased person’s Google account data will likely be beneficial when managing their estate if gmail is their principal personal email account. For instance, resetting unknown passwords to 3rd party services such as iTunes, online banking, other social networking accounts is largely done via email.

There are also potential downsides to reading through someone’s private history and relationships. By looking through these archives, you are likely to become privy to a world inhabited by all kinds of private conversations. People often have secret lives, or have done things or have feelings that the people closest them may not know about. Even if this is not the case, online conversations can easily be misinterpreted.

Google Inactive Manager – features & things to consider when setting this service up

What happens to a Facebook profile when someone dies?

A few years back, Facebook introduced a feature in which you can memorialise the Facebook profile of someone who has died. In brief, this means that once a death certificate or similar evidence is provided to the social networking site, the profile of the deceased effectively becomes inactive yet remains visible to their network. The person’s account can no longer be accessed, so new friends cannot be accepted; their friendship network remains as it was, just before they died.

Automated updates such as the person’s birthday, likes or recommendations are completely switched off, so Facebook friends and friends of friends will not receive “say Happy Birthday” or “do you know?” updates from the person who has died.

I understand why some of the memorialisation features were introduced and why. Privacy for the account holder is a key consideration and understandably so. All the same, our recent experience of losing a family member shows that for various reasons, these features are not always beneficial to the deceased or grieving family and friends. And in some cases, they do not go far enough.

Facebook_digitalafterlife_memories

HOW WE INTERACT IS DIFFERENT WHEN ONLINE & WHEN WE’RE WITH SOMEONE

After my brother’s funeral last year, our family held drinks with friends and colleagues to share stories about him in one of his old pub haunts. At one point, after many toasts had been made and stories shared, I found myself sitting at a table with five other women who all turned out to be his ex-girlfriends.

The conversation was menacingly polite until one of the group started to draw comparisons between herself and another, noting how similar she thought they were. The other disagreed and suddenly, the conversation livened up. There was some fairly vocal discussion as others joined in and compared opinions. The situation felt awkward, while civilised. I wanted to disappear and eavesdrop from a safe distance but I didn’t; it was such an extraordinary situation.

This gathering initially seemed so unlikely. It made sense after thinking it through. In a room full of disparate friendship groups and cliques, these women gravitated towards each other because they shared a common experience; each sharing a part of my brother’s life.

The idea of former flames converging in one place is enough to set most pulses racing. This situation is not one my brother could have easily endured if he were alive. You could feel a palpable sense of relief (mixed with disappointment) from others in the room when the group disbanded.Communities_memories_digital afterlife

In our day-to-day lives, we compartmentalise and in turn, group ourselves with others depending on how we relate to them or share common interests. Where we have different interests and groups of friends, we also tend to communicate with them separately and in multiple ways. And in stark contrast to the previously mentioned scene, we very often avoid mixing friends or acquaintances where we anticipate conflict, awkwardness, lack of commonality or differences in personality or ideology.

In our digital spaces, we do not take this multi-faceted approach to communicating. We mostly take a one approach fits all when sharing news with our networks, largely because it’s convenient. On spaces such as Facebook, you can separate groups of friends but few bother to put the effort in to maintain them. Even if you do, the platform just doesn’t accommodate the degrees of nuance of our in-person social interactions.

Similarly, when we communicate via other social platforms such as Twitter, FourSquare or Pinterest, we broadcast to all our connections, whether or not it is relevant to everyone who is connected with us. We curate and self-censor to what we feel comfortable sharing across our multi-faceted friendship groups, then monitor, moderate and occasionally censor what people post in return.

facebook-memorialization-digital-afterlife

ISSUES WITH MEMORIALISATION

When Facebook receives a notice to memorialise, the profile of the deceased user becomes inactive and it has no one actively managing the account anymore. If no one has access to managing the Facebook account of the person who has died, no one is able to continue curating the ongoing dialogue around his/her life and death. There is no one to manage the public messages that are sent within the wider network, posted on the deceased’s profile wall.

This requires the co-operation of all friends of that person to communicate in a way that is respectful – not only to the memory of their friend and in a way that he or she would have appreciated, but also in a manner that respects the feelings and boundaries of others in his or her network. Our recent experience shows this doesn’t always happen.

Perhaps this is because the impersonal nature of posting on a wall means it is easier to forget (or never know) who is in the audience. After all, an in-person discussion more often than not, starts with an introduction and an awareness that someone else is part of the conversation.

My brother’s death, as is often the case with military deaths, was reported widely in the media. There were cases of people trying to attach and position themselves to the publicity, magnifying their relationship with him, sometimes speaking for him. Such actions, a friend pointed out, are what’s known as grief tourism.

Friends and family objected to some of the photos and private as well as public messages that certain friends posted on his wall and across his network. When it happened, we had to intervene behind the scenes and encourage more sensitive behaviour.

It’s not possible to change the security levels around the profile once memorialised either, which means that there’s no way to approve comments to the wall or timeline if maximum security settings were established. And where security settings are overly liberal, a laissez-faire wall risks causing distress to family and friends, just as their grief is most sensitive.

facebook pages-memorialisation-digital afterlife

There is the option of setting up a Facebook page to counter some of the issues I’ve mentioned here. This is a commonly taken approach which I’ve seen happen within my own network when family members or friends have set up a memorial page for someone who has died. They’ve done this in part to provide a platform for the community grieving process as well as to bring together photos and past memories so they can see memories they may not have been part of before. This is what Facebook recommends and it is a great opportunity if you want to increase the profile of the person who has died. For instance, it can support a desire to honour them publicly, build awareness around a related cause or conduct fundraising in their name.

On the other hand, it can also mean that relatives and close friends have multiple destinations to monitor, moderate or remember that person by. When setting up a separate page, they may not have access to the deceased’s network to encourage people to follow a new memorial destination. The open nature of a page also means that it’s difficult to limit a page to friends, family and acquaintances if the goal is for more private reflection; it can lead to a situation that’s wrought with issues if the death has been in the public eye.

Understanding that privacy — for the deceased as well as those they have privately communicated with — needs to be respected, there must surely be a compromise. For instance, offering the option for Facebook users to pass account management to the next of kin or nominated person in the event of their death, so that their chosen representative can moderate community discussions, protect the public legacy of the deceased as well as monitor security settings.

This type of external control could co-exist with existing memorialisation features such as restricting access to features such as Facebook messages while dis-allowing new friendship connections, birthday reminders or other types of profile recommendations. A nomination process would offer greater protection for the interests of the deceased as well as greater recourse for the community in the event that mediation is required.

NEXT UP: MANAGING A COMMUNITY ON FACEBOOK OF SOMEONE WHO HAS DIED + CONSIDERING FACEBOOK IN ESTATE PLANNING

Is digital eroding our past?

memories_digital afterlife

Our new digital identities mostly exist in the hands of third parties and for many these days, memories reside in email and social media. Our mementos of events are digital photographs, or a casual comment posted online. These seem fleeting in the moment, but can quickly gain significance as life changes occur. While we assume their digital nature makes them always accessible, they may not end up being everlasting.

The people in our family have always hoarded personal mementos. Correspondence, photos, interesting lists, old membership cards and random but significant bits of paper – we have thrown these haphazard fragments of personal history into cardboard boxes, under beds and in drawers. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sorting through forty years of these memory boxes.

Among them, I discovered perhaps the first recorded account of my thirteen year old self winding up my five year old brother. I was at boarding school at the time, and written letters were my main connection to home. The distance taught us the value of letter writing, between each other, family and friends. Given that we kept most of these letters, I was able to eventually piece together this incident from three perspectives, with letters from my mother providing a third perspective. His response to my paper trolling was assertive while at the same time, totally adorable and generous. And my mother’s intervention demonstrated her humorous side in how she decided to adjudicate the situation.

Preserving memories_ written v. digital afterlife

Looking back on correspondence from the past has been fun, comforting and enlightening. It documents so much about our family and our relationships with each other. Old letters have been a joy to look through and reminisce over, sometimes providing a reminder of situations that I hadn’t thought about for years. Sometimes, they recount events that I have no memory of at all.

I’m not sure when I stopped writing letters, however my brother continued to be an avid correspondent with ink and paper.

It was a significant occasion when he got his first email account as I had been encouraging him to do so for a while. In one of his many boxes, I uncovered a printed copy of our first email conversation from the late 1990s.

The email address I was using at that time was also my first email account, which until a fortnight or so ago I hadn’t thought about in ten years. But after trying to access it again to look for any other emails between us, I discovered that the email provider had been acquired, renamed and that my account no longer existed.

Not only have I lost this period of history, I’ve lost messages from the future. For example, at the opening of the London Millennium Dome, visitors were asked to provide their email addresses accompanied by a short message before leaving the exhibition. The Dome said they would send these notes back to their owners decades later as a reminder of what they had been thinking about that day.

I won’t receive that obnoxious message from my younger self outlining what a disappointment I felt the Dome had been and I suspect few of the thousands of visitors to the Dome will receive theirs. Given most people will have changed their email address at least once since then, I imagine the bounce rate on that particular mailout – if they even bother – will be close to 100%. Yet in my boxes of memories I still have the postcard and novelty over sized pencil that I bought from the Dome gift shop, items that on face value are junk but they’ve served a purpose of sparking distinct memories of that day.

Preserving memories_written v digital afterlife

My point is that I’ve consistently kept physical mementos, while I haven’t applied the same consideration to digital history and correspondence. I have a rich mine of private correspondence which provides a recorded history up to my early 20s. But as soon as I moved to email, it almost immediately runs dry, as my communications quickly moved online.

A fifteen year gap to now clearly demonstrates a casual attitude toward personal email archiving. Of course, notes and correspondence have been captured in other ways, for instance on Facebook and even MySpace walls or apps such as Foursquare or Twitter. But these tend to be public interactions so their nature is less personal.

In the past decade, I’ve moved from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use, as well as a multitude of work email addresses. Unfortunately, some of these accounts are now lost and no longer accessible. The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to archive personal conversations as they happen. Today Facebook and Gmail might seem immortal, but there’s every reason to question whether they’ll still be around in a decade. Or whether they’ll make it easy to uncover these past memories. Their purpose may be entirely different.

While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent archiving experience has highlighted the value of a system – even one that is chaotic and ad-hoc – to continually capture personal messages and notes so they aren’t lost to my future self. A new way of communicating requires a new way of archiving. For the email accounts I can still access, I plan to rummage through them like old cardboard boxes and recover personal conversations. Maybe, I’ll be able to re-connect with people from the past.

If you do a search on email archiving, there’s plenty of advice on how to manage old accounts and email management. Here’s a wrap of articles that I’ve found useful. If you have other tips to add, please do so below. All ideas are welcome.

The pen v. the keyboard and privacy in death

Digital afterlife_ estate planning &issues & privacy

A few weeks after my brother’s death, Mum and Dad received eight large cardboard boxes of his personal effects from where he was stationed in Afghanistan as well as from his UK base living quarters. His laptop was included amongst these.

We had and still have an insatiable desire to find out more about him, piecing together strands of his life story like a jigsaw puzzle as we look through old photos and have conversations with his friends.

Our curiosity extended to his laptop but at the same time, we felt uncertain about whether we should look into its contents. The existence of a username and password on a laptop changes the way that you feel about accessing someone’s information contained within, whether they are alive or not. It’s generally considered taboo.

We wouldn’t have thought less of him, regardless of (almost) anything we discovered.  Our concern was though, would he have wanted his family or friends to know what was beyond his screensaver? He was rigorous about changing passwords frequently.

Despite our initial reticence, our solution was to ask an acquaintance who didn’t know him to crack into and look through the laptop’s content, deciphering what he might have wanted to share with family or friends and what he was more likely to want to remain private. That way, conversations, photos, old internet searches, notes and chat via apps such as WhatApp that he may have wanted to stay confidential, remained confidential.

It seemed to be a good compromise.  We could continue to find out more about my brother’s adventures through previewed items such as photos or snapshots of his most recent selections in music and movies via download histories or databases. Meanwhile, we felt he kept his dignity.

I considered it a straightforward process and thought that would be the end of the matter.  That is until over time, more and more belongings were unpacked and we discovered his diaries.

My brother was a meticulous note taker and asides from the occasional lapse, a writer of regular diary entries.  He had notebooks that came back from Afghanistan, his various postings as well as journals from his London work life and school days. As soon as we discovered these, I realised we had assessed his digital memoires very differently from the ones he jotted down on paper.

He wrote several online notes and entries on his laptop, usually in note taking programs or in word documents. Initially I felt that we should avoid or wipe these, perhaps because in my mind they seemed off limits and were less structured. By comparison, it hadn’t occurred to me that we should destroy his penmanship.

The online entries fortunately survived and both laptop and handwritten entries remain mostly unread.  But a conundrum remains.

Currently I’m contemplating whether or not it’s okay to read a person’s private thoughts when they are gone regardless of where they are written.

Diaries are often read and published post-mortem. In an informal poll with friends and family, their response tends to be that it is a question of personal choice whether or not you read the inner thoughts of someone close when they’ve gone.

Not having spoken with him about his views on the matter and in the absence of any last wish guidance, my opinion wavers regularly. However, whatever the outcome, his thoughts from the laptop will have equal weight.

Planning and managing a digital afterlife

Planning & managing digital death; photo credit Thomas Edmondston-Low

Towards the end of 2012, my younger brother was killed in Afghanistan.

While we knew the work he was doing was dangerous and acknowledged there was a risk he could be killed while serving, my parents and I didn’t entertain the possibility that he would.  This is the beginning of the rest of our lives without him.

My brother crammed so much into his 29 years, it’s hard to fathom how he managed it.  Our family continues to receive letters from friends and colleagues offering insights into his adventures, expanding our knowledge and repertoire of stories about him as a boy, a man and later, a soldier.

He lived and worked in five countries, spoke three languages and trained in places such as Nepal and Brunei. He was a keen sportsman, taking up competitive boxing and tributes on his social networks consistently referred to his talent with a cricket, rugby or hockey ball.

As well as being nauseatingly accomplished, he had a wicked sense of humour, was popular and remembered by friends and acquaintances as a gentleman. The nature of his job and the travel involved meant that he had friends all over the world. On the cold, grey, rainy day of his funeral in the North of England, I met people who had travelled from Australia, Germany, Japan, Kuwait, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States to say goodbye to him.

So why am I introducing you to my brother? Mostly because I’m so proud of him that I want everyone to know and remember him.  The initial shock experienced by family and friends is starting to subside and the occasions we’ve had to commemorate his life, have been and gone. Life goes on as updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn illustrate and it has done for a while.

But in the midst of the emotional aftershocks, there are some aspects of his online life that our family has grappled with recently.  My brother has left behind a digital estate and we’re not sure how to administer it.

As well as the many physical mementos he’s left behind, he’s endowed us with an abundance of online memories and content. He applied common safeguards and was security conscious but didn’t consider what he wanted to happen to his digital footprint in the event of his death. This isn’t surprising. Discussions around this subject are not standard procedure during the execution of a will.

We’ve inherited his memories via data in the cloud, email accounts, social media and mobile accounts. While policies and administrative access are some of the items we’ve had to work out, we’re continuing to have philosophical and often difficult discussions on whether we’re managing his online presence in the right way, in the way he would have wanted.

Social plays a significant role in the grieving process for younger generations. With his active, social and well travelled lifestyle, the variety of his in-person relationships and social groups was mirrored in his online life. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to communicate online with grieving friends, the management of his communities and other general social media etiquette. Often we’ve received questions from people uncertain about appropriate online behaviour while mourning. Weeks after his death, one of my brother’s friends dropped me a line asking when it would be appropriate to update the tribute cover photo on her Facebook page that she posted at the time of his death.

I’ve also mentioned that I want people to remember my brother but how do you do this with  his digital profiles? In the famous words of Laurence Binyon, those who have fallen… “shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” We have memorialised his online presence on Facebook but will we change the way he is remembered? At what point should we consider taking down his profile.  Or should we?

So, from time to time, I’m going to share some of the experiences that our family has had since we inherited my brother’s digital legacy and how we’ve resolved the discussions I’ve mentioned. At the same time, I hope to offer practical insights on what to think about in planning a digital will as well as some thoughts on etiquette around death in the digital age.

We don’t have the answers and are working through scenarios as they come up or we think about them. I hope you’ll share your experiences and thoughts here as I write about ours.

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