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Your Space After Death
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After a hiatus from substantive posts, here is something I’ve been working on:

There are a few routes people can take to achieve a tangible legacy. Making: scientific breakthroughs, lots of money (and then funding impressive pieces of architecture to be named after you), babies (though the latter aren’t guaranteed to venerate you in death). But until advancements in the fields of cryogenics allow us to freeze our bodies to be defrosted at a later date, the easiest way to remain immortal today is probably via the Internet.

But what happens to your virtual presence after your physical presence has left Earth?

This question uncovers a grey area in the policies and protocol of many online social media and email providers, but more cases of deceased user’s accounts arise, the companies are working on developing policies that suit the needs of their users, their friends and family.

Currently the king of social media sites, Facebook opened its servers to all in 2006 garnering the now infamous 500 million users statistic. Initially the site catered only to college and then high school users, so the issue of deaths had not been especially pressing. But as the site gains popularity in older demographics (according to December 2010 data, nearly 40% of Facebook users are over 35) and the internet generation grows older, some predict the emergence of a “cyber-graveyard.”

It was two summers ago when my youthful notions of immortality were first infringed upon. An acquaintance I had gone to school with since our elementary days passed away.

The discovery was made, where else, but via Facebook; within hours, Charlotte*’s Facebook page accumulated post after post after post.

Never have so many people had access to a memorial at any time of the day—spilling their immediate emotions onto the page and for the world to see. People that had never spoken to her before suddenly appeared out of the crevices of the Internet to reminisce.

“hey, i really wasnt close to you but always saw your pretty smile in the hall way. … its amazing how many ppl get on here everyday just to write to you. everyone misses you SO much..but they know you are looking down on them and watching over them”

Days later, it had become a full-fledged memorial to her life—people uploading childhood photos and videos and messages continued to pour through on her virtual monument. By the end of the week 90 some photos had been uploaded and there were over 100 wall posts.

The constant accessibility of the memorial has transformed the page into a sort of portal to the other side—a one-way communication center where people continue to wish her happy holidays and fill her in with the happenings of their lives. Even now, almost two years later, Charlotte continues to get Earthly updates from friends—including this one from 3:40am:

“so i’m sitting here trying to be a good student and write my paper a whole week early but facebook has got the best of me LIKE ALWAYS. haha anyways just wanted to check in. you have no idea how many people truly miss you. i think about you every second of everyday. but on a happier note, i wanted to tell you about my day! for some reason today has just been my day! so today i was waiting on class and this really cute boy i’ve had my eye on said hey to me! i got so jittery, haha i know you were dying laughing because i’m so lame. hes super cute though, help me out :) uhhh finals are about to start so this is going to be quite the stressful week. pull me through it. i hope you having a wonderful night and i’ll have my usual heart to heart with you tonight in my prayers! can’t wait! i love you more than you will ever know. keep shining!”

At a first glance, after reading this post and many more along a similar vein, it seemed that her friends were not ready to let go and their writings could be interpreted as a manifestation of denial. Some write to Charlotte as if nothing as happened, a way for loved ones to cling to the last vestiges of a friend’s Earthly life, but closer inspection reveals that this is a new avenue for mourning, brought to you by the 21st century.

Even for the inner-circle of loved ones, the forum proves casual and ordinary enough so that those on shaky emotional ground, who may not be ready to give a eulogy or send official condolences, can still mourn. Her cousin Katie writes, “i miss you alot and i hope your facebook doesn’t ever go away.“ In reponse,another friend Jenny comments, “I feel the same way. I find myself looking at her page almost everyday and would be so sad if it was gone.”

Memorializing via the internet significantly broadens the grieving dialogue, making it much more inclusive—even to those who were not well acquainted with the deceased, but may still undergoing the grief of losing someone, especially, as it may be a young user’s first encounter with mortality.

Facebook facilitates this sort of commemoration by automatically preserving a person’s page. According to their official policy, after a user is determined deceased, Facebook “memorializes” the account—in effect freezing it, leaving “The Wall… so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.”

In order to prevent fraud and various acts of tomfoolery, social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, have procedures set in place for determining when a user has passed. In order to have a profile preserved or shut down, the next of kin must provide proof of relationship as well as public, published obituary. These procedures are not fail-safe, as such information can be fraudulently produced, but for the most part, false death notices have not been an issue.

More of a contentious matter, concerns over privacy and access to information have been gaining attention. Websites are scrambling to develop official policies to handle deceased user’s accounts. Facebook’s policy outlines that sensitive information (such as phone numbers or private status updates) are removed from the user’s profile. Also, the account is effectly frozen from outside use—no one may access the account to edit the profile or view private messages, and only friends of the deceased may view and comment on the memorialized profile. If the family chooses so, they can also request for the account’s deletion. MySpace has a similar policy, allowing next of kin ability to “delete or preserve” the profile in contention, but not allowing access into the account itself.

In August 2009, the popular “microblogging” site, Twitter announced its official policy to handle the accounts of deceased users. In Twitter’s case, some high-profile Tweeters are followed by hundreds of thousands of people (or in actor Ashton Kutcher’s case, over a million). Because of the high traffic of some of these profiles, they actually end up accruing some economic value, as sites like Twitter receive much of their revenue from ads, which depend on unique visits to the site. The more traffic, the more profit. Twitter’s policy maintains that families can save records of all their loved one’s “tweets”, as the 140 character lines are referred to.

The advent of virtual online accounts has opened up a new interchange regarding the ownership and right to personal information, as well as a new interchange for mourning. Technology has enabled a more concrete dialogue between loved ones and the deceased—people now use Facebook as a platform to “check-in” with those who have passed. Yet while more concrete than normal avenues of, say prayer, most of us are still removed enough from the inner-workings of sites like Facebook an ethereal quality still remains. Perhaps “there are Mini-feeds” of information and updates that can be checked in the Afterlife.

THE MAILBOX IN THE SKY

Popular email hosts have varying degrees of privacy towards the deaceased’s accounts.

Yahoo! stands as a stalwart—presenting one of the strictest policies regarding access. Short of a trip to the courthouse, under no circumstances can anybody access a deceased person’s inbox, and Yahoo! will only honor requests to close down an account if a death certificate is provided. Under their terms of service #27: “No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.2

Yahoo!’s policy on deaths was brought to the spotlight in 2004, when a mother requested for her son’s account password so she could sift through his final words and mementos. Yahoo! denied this request. Her son, Justin Ellsworth, was a marine who was killed serving in Afghanistan. The media quickly picked up on the story.

“Emotionally, this is very difficult for all involved,” said Yahoo! spokeswoman Mary Osako. “However, there are important reasons why we feel it is important to uphold the preferences that are part of the agreement we have with our users regarding their privacy. What all of us are looking for is a path that upholds individual privacy and also fully respects a family’s request.”1

A legal battle ensued and after months in court, Yahoo! complied with the court order to hand over the account information. Currently their private policy includes the clause “You acknowledge, consent and agree that Yahoo! may access, preserve and disclose your account information and Content if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary.” Other popular email hosts—like Gmail, Hotmail and AOL—allow for next-of-kin to access the deceased’s inbox with proof of relationship without court proceedings.

ENDING YOUR VIRTUAL LIFE

In order for one’s desired wishes to be kept, services are popping up that allow users to pass on their online information to family or loved ones. One such service, Legacy Locker, advertises itself as a “safe, secure repository for your vital digital property that lets you grant access to online assets for friends and loved ones in the event of loss, death, or disability.” Some suggest including information regarding online accounts in your will—or at least letting your family know how you’d like your online accounts taken care of.

Packed neatly away in a server in the Silicon Valley, as the Internet generation reaches their golden years, these personal virtual lives may continue to remain frozen in time even after their passing—becoming arrangements their families must deal with, as well as oases for grief and mourning. I know that at least in my case, my grandchildren won’t be rummaging through my cookies. But I wouldn’t mind updates on cute boys, now and then.

*Named changed

1 http://news.cnet.com/Yahoo-denies-family-access-to-dead-marines-e-mail/2100-1038_3-5500057.html

2 http://info.yahoo.com/legal/us/yahoo/utos/utos-173.html