How to limit emotional fall out when planning digital afterlife messages

There’s a plethora of digital services now available for consumers where they can share messages and information with their next of kin, friends and family after they die. For instance, Facebook based offerings such as Dead Social and If I Die allow users to share pre-recorded and approved goodbye messages to their social networks on Facebook and Twitter. Other digital estate planning services also offer the option to send final notes or messages as part of their portfolio.

While there’s no research that I’m aware of to show how this form of communication impacts the way in which we grieve, anecdotal evidence often shows that people are shocked when seeing images or reminders concerning their dead friends within social media communities.

For those considering a post-mortem social media strategy, consider your audience – the friends, family, colleagues, lovers left behind who will analysis and ponder over your messages as they come to terms with their loss.

Read more about different types of digital messaging and estate management services.

Three things to think about when planning digital afterlife messages

  • When people are grieving, everything has the potential to be a sharp reminder of a memory, thought, experience or regret about someone they will never see, hear, touch or talk with again. What is the impact to your community if you schedule a series of messages over a period of time? Are the messages comforting or are there people for whom this might be distressing? Understanding the likely reaction of your audience will help you determine how you deliver your messages and on what platform.
  • Be clear in what you want to say. Ambiguous, unconsidered messages could be misinterpreted or cause unintended responses such as hurt or confusion. There’s no opportunity for recipients to later clarify your meaning.
  • If you’re planning a series of messages on an ongoing basis, how will they relate and be relevant to the experiences your friends and family are going through?

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What are your thoughts on post-mortem message leaving? Drop your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.

Find out how ‘messages from the beyond’ can be comforting.

Who owns your digital history in a future far, far away?

digital_data_digital_afterlife_digital_historyI’ve been speaking with a variety of researchers on the legal aspects around our digital accounts and what happens to them after we die. Often the discussion focuses on who is entitled to access a deceased person’s online account data – such as email, photos or documents – and the consensus is that it’s complicated.

Some platforms such as Google have started to allow users to nominate next of kin, family or friends to receive their personal information once their account becomes inactive. With the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act approved in the US (July 2014), we may see a system where a personal representative of a deceased person’s estate has as much right to manage the digital assets of the deceased in the same way they would their tangible assets. Currently ownership of digital assets often remain with online services such as Facebook and Yahoo unless contested through the legal system by a next of kin.

While laws are catching up with digital and social technologies, Damian McCallig, a PhD candidate from the School of Law at National University of Ireland in Galway is curious to know what will happen to our data a generation or more after we die.

As he points out, current copyright laws in countries like the UK and Australia allow someone’s personal information to become available in the public domain several years after that individual has died. Records around births, deaths and marriages are accessible by researchers or family members interested in their genealogy or a previous generation’s history. Unpublished works such as diaries or letters can be published without the permission of their estate, as long as a certain period of time has passed since the author died. In the UK, this is seventy years, although there are specific exemptions.

“Currently a lot of today’s information that is relevant for the researchers and historians of the future is behind walls and owned by companies,” says McCallig. “For instance, Barack Obama has a Twitter account which will hold public tweets but also private messages which are gated. This information will be relevant from a historical and research point of view. Previously these kinds of notes would have become available after a set period of time. What copyright laws apply to this digital data managed by private organisations?”

McCallig believes that Facebook would have been alerted to the opportunity around its memorialised accounts (what is Facebook memorialisation?) when a father campaigned for a ‘look back’ video to be made for his son who died in 2012, attracting widespread support. He wonders if Facebook is assessing the commercial potential for its deceased accounts in the long term. Facebook’s main revenue stream comes from advertising, based on driving eyeballs to ad creative and sponsored posts. Memorialised Facebook accounts offer no value to marketers or monetisation options for the company in its current model.

While he’s not certain on how Facebook would commercialise these accounts, likely scenarios could include charging researchers, educational institutions, public information bodies and even individuals for access to archival information.

“Facebook is able to provide insights on how communities reacted to news and events within specific contexts or a particular point in time. It can detail emotional responses as well as online behaviour across timelines and networks,” says McCallig. “That’s of tremendous value to future historians.”

If this is the case, should these historical insights and archives be available freely to the public or remain in the hands of commercial companies? And if Facebook fails to survive, should there be a contingency plan to protect and share our histories with future generations?

What do you think?

Read more about Damian McCallig’s perspectives on Digital Remains or connect with him on Twitter.

 

 

Change to memorialisation + “Look Back” videos for Facebook deceased

Facebook made an announcement last week which shows that it has been giving some thought to how the social networking platform can best help people remember and celebrate their loved ones.

The first change they’ve introduced is that the Facebook memorialisation feature (what is memorialisation?) will continue to keep the account holder’s visibility features set as they were before the person died. Previously, only people set as ‘friends’ were able to see and interact with their page. So if a person decides that ‘friends’ and ‘friends of friends’ are able to their wall whilst living, these same groups of people will be able to see that person’s account after they have died.

Also… remember the Look Back video that has being doing the rounds on Facebook? This is the personalised video feature that shows users’ top content moments over the past ten years, launched to coincide with Facebook’s ten year anniversary. After one father’s appeal to Facebook for a Look Back video for his son who died in 2012, Facebook have made a request process available for others who have deceased friends and would like to view a Look Back video for them.  To apply and see a Look Back video for a deceased friend, the account must be memorialised and the requester must have ‘friend’ status. The requester will be sent a private link which cannot be shared.

Facebook have placed emphasis on the privacy of account holders and honouring this in life and in death. The company has also alluded to additional changes in upcoming months so that people can better establish how they want to be remembered on Facebook and what they want to leave behind for others. I’m hoping that they are considering a living will arrangement in the same way Google has set up its Google Inactive Manager.

How to hide Facebook account activity of friends who have died

It’s common to hear people mentioning that they find it difficult when they continue to see the presence of their deceased friends on Facebook – on friend lists, by tagged activity others in a shared community have posted, or via automated suggestions in news feeds.

No mainstream social network currently allows people to separate profiles of deceased friends or acquaintances from their living present-day active ones, although there are some features that users can take advantage of to manage a friend or connection’s activity. Relatives and next of kin of those who have died have the option of closing their accounts or – in the case of Facebook – continuing the account but memorialising it.

Often, these same relatives are unaware that memorialisation options exist but even if they activate this process, they have no control over Facebook settings, such as those for privacy or notifications.

For people who are uncomfortable seeing profiles or activity of deceased friends on their Facebook account but who do not want to ‘unfriend’ them, here are some suggestions to minimise these kind of reminders.

Hide a Facebook friend’s news feed. If you have a friend who has died and you don’t wish to see updates in your news feed relating to them – either when people post on their wall, or when updates are posted by someone who has password access to their account – you can change your settings to avoid these. Or, if you don’t want to hide all activity, you can specifically outline what type of activity you would like to see appearing on your news feed.

Hide Facebook Page updates. You may also follow a Facebook page set up to commemorate someone but may not want to hear news from family and friends when updates are posted but instead prefer to check in from time to time. To stop seeing these updates, go to the page you no longer want to see updates from, and at the top right hand corner of the page, there’s a notifications button. Set this notifications button to “off”. This same process works for friends, people or pages that you follow.

Manage several accounts at once by creating a Facebook list. If you have a group of friends that you want to manage in the same way in one location, you can create a list to control what information and status updates you see. Once you create a list, you can select or uncheck the options that show up in your newsfeed by going to ‘manage list’ > ‘update status types’.

Here’s a good all round article on managing friends and doing a general news feed spring clean. As ever, do post any additional tips, comments or suggestions below.

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.

Social media etiquette around death – what’s appropriate?

social media_etiquette_death_digitalafterlife

Every day we are instinctively governed by social and community norms, whether or not we are conscious of it. We are generally considerate towards our elders for example or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when we want to acknowledge others’ actions.

Social conventions change of course according to the groups we’re with as well as the times we live in. Each new medium and context brings new emergent norms, often with positive results – letter writing and telephone manners come to mind. Sometimes though the results are less positive – consider the way people can change when behind the wheel.

When it comes to online behaviour, what rules are we governed by? Should the etiquette that we apply in our day to day lives extend to our digital behaviour? Some aspects of social media etiquette are unclear, and it’s time we talked about convention.

A story about a social media faux pas

Towards the end of last year, at 5 AM in the morning Sydney time, I received news of my brother’s death. My folks, back in the UK, had been frantically trying to phone me for hours as I was sleeping. Given the early hour and my phone being on silent, it was only when I woke up co-incidentally, checking my phone for the time and noticing the multiple missed messages from home, that I returned their calls and found out that he had been killed in action.

When this happens to a UK soldier, the military powers that be impose a communications blackout at the location of the incident, to prevent news of the death being leaked by fellow soldiers on the ground, who otherwise have open lines of communication with family and friends.

This order allows the military to communicate the death of a loved one with the utmost respect. It is unfortunately, a well rehearsed and established process. The next of kin is informed first, who is in turn given time to break the news to extended family and close friends prior to any media intrusion or an unexpected broadcast of the incident. Nobody wants to learn of a loved one’s death on the evening news.

At the time, my parents and the Army Visiting Officer assigned to our family told me that they were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to get hold of me before the end of this curfew. As it turns out, we were in touch relatively quickly. However, it wasn’t the media outlets that announced the news first – it was posted to Facebook. We still had several hours remaining on the curfew.

social media_etiquette_death_digitalafterlifeNews of my brother’s death was broken in a two line update by one of his early informed friends via one of his Facebook pages less than three hours after I was told what had happened. Once out, the word disseminated through his online networks within minutes.

My brother’s friends in Australia and Japan woke up to the news over breakfast and given it was still early morning in both countries, we hadn’t had the chance of breaking the news to those closest to him. While his best friends had valiantly tried to inform everyone personally in the UK before the communications blackout and media deadline ended, their attempts were thwarted by the announcement on social. The job had been done for us.

Admittedly, I was angry back then that news of my brother’s death was broken in this way. Of course, there were other things to focus on. I also wondered if the immediate shock and grief was making me irrational.

Over a year on though, I’m still angry about what happened. Perhaps more so. It’s definitely up there with the “whodunnit” scenarios that were running through my mind in the lead up to my brother’s inquest. And I’m not entirely sure why.

Perhaps it was the casual use of multiple exclamation marks to report his demise or the fact that the news was broken by someone who, as far as I am aware, did not attend any of the numerous memorial or funeral services held for him.

There weren’t any messages of condolence sent by him to my brother’s closest family or friends either.

Maybe it was because someone took it upon themselves to communicate an event that was to have such a significant impact on the lives of close family and friends, in such a cavalier way. We wanted to inform people in a less brutal, more respectful fashion – in person. That ability was taken from us.

A rational view of the situation

The thing that strikes me about this story is that although I’m mad about what happened, I can understand how it did. The person at the centre of the story likely remains ignorant of how their action jarred some in my brother’s network. They may even have thought that they were being appropriate and genuine.

There are no general accepted guidelines on social etiquette in the digital space. I don’t remember ever hearing a conversation about online conduct or manners although fortunately there is increasing commentary about unacceptable behaviours such as bullying or trolling.

What’s more, because social is such an all-consuming presence in our lives influencing our communications around all major life milestones, we’re no longer sure if we should be following so-called traditional conventions. Last week for instance, a work colleague told me that he asked someone for the address of a mutual friend who had died quite suddenly so that he could send a letter of condolence. Instead, he was directed to a Facebook memorial page. We’re at a stage where we’re creating new customs. It’s very confusing.

So what’s appropriate?

I’ve talked previously about how the impersonal nature of posting on a wall means it is easier to forget (or never know) who is in the audience. While an in-person discussion more often than not, starts with an introduction we tend to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach when sharing news with our online networks.

While we’re still working out our online social etiquette, common sense and consideration towards others is a good thing to think about, especially when news can spread so contagiously through friends once released. Any action, regardless of its intention, can spread across networks in seconds. You never know who is going to end up reading what you post. I’d strongly suggest looking from the perspective of your audience. If you don’t want to offend, how are others in either your network or related networks likely to look upon your updates?

More specifically though, my view is that you shouldn’t reveal life impacting news such as engagement or wedding announcements, deaths, illnesses or impending child arrivals on a public forum unless it is your news to share; or alternatively, you have been nominated to share the news by the person(s) it directly involves or affects.

For a start, it’s not your news to distribute.  It may also cause complications if those directly involved haven’t told other close friends or family first.  While breaking a story you’ve become privy to may provide a temporary thrill by making you appear ‘first to know’ and putting you at the heart of the social action for a few hours, it’s more classy and sensitive to hold back.

Thinking longer term though, will acceptable norms organically emerge, or will intervention be required at some point?

If you consider how we’ve learnt what’s acceptable conduct to this point, it’s via social situations. As young children, we’re told to ‘shush’ in environments in which we’re supposed to be respectful. As we get older, we learn appropriate phrases or patterns of behaviour by witnessing others do it first hand or being guided through mimicry. We’re asked (told!) to say please, thank you, to share, and to include.

Parents are currently trying to keep up with their kids, such has been the pace of change in this last decade. We’re all still learning to navigate this new world of public networks and connections with each other. In the same way that governments and education bodies are encouraging the education of both parents and children about the very real safety threats in online worlds, I’ve no doubt that in the not so distant future, we’ll be providing lessons and workshops in schools and community groups about how to interact responsibly with others on social media.

It will take time but social media etiquette is in its infancy because social media as a communications tool is very young. Establishing broadly accepted ritual and conventions takes time.

What are your thoughts? Ideas? As ever, feel free to share.

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