Digital Afterlife: What Happens to Your Facebook When You Die?

Both the technology and the etiquette of bereavement are changing. Are we keeping up?

 

Bill Hockenson considered himself close with his 40-year-old son Cameron, up until Cameron’s last moments falling off the cliffs of Big Sur in August 2015. But in the outpouring of condolences on Facebook after his son’s accident, there were stories and photos he didn’t recognize of someone who was no longer alive to describe them.

The Danville resident realized he could have known so much more about his son. There are always moments or thoughts big and small to miss about someone even if you’re with them every second of every day. And that’s where past online communications can be a treasure trove of those missed moments.

Hockenson found photos of Cameron — a world-traveling artist and teacher — jumping to help his photography students capture subjects in motion and a 2005 portrait of him made by a former student shared on Facebook. Through Cameron’s email, he also found his son was developing an art program at Instituto Allende in Mexico he would never see realized.

“My experience was just so intense and so consuming that I dove into his life and found out what I could,” Hockenson says. “It was so profoundly emotionally necessary, although heavily, heavily laced with grief.”

In an episode of the dystopian Black Mirror, a widow coping with the unexpected loss of her husband takes it a few steps further than merely digging into his online accounts. She orders a robot that emulates his thoughts, based on his online communications.

It didn’t work for the “Be Right Back” character in the long run — her husband’s online persona manufactured a stunted version of him. But, if such a thing were possible, Hockenson says he would apply a similar technology to Cameron.

“It would be anyone’s dream to understand them, capture them, [and] know them again,” he says.

Cameron Hockenson, pictured in Japan, lived and traveled around the world where art projects took him before his death in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Bill Hockenson)

The issue of preserving a loved one’s personal history to help family and friends grieve can be a feel-good aspect of what happens to our social media after we die. When it comes to privacy, however, things get more complicated. Is it ethical to read the emails of the dead, or for digital platforms to take away a tool for mourning? Who is entitled to decide what the deceased person wanted to preserve of themselves? And how do social media platforms wield this responsibility?

Like many of us, Cameron Hockenson’s documented thoughts, whereabouts, and life events will live on in social media profiles and email exchanges. But, 15 years after the advent of Myspace, inconsistent terms-of-service agreements determine what happens to a deceased person’s data — something we generate much more of now than in 2002. On top of that, what few legal guidelines we have are riddled with ethical questions about bereavement in a constantly changing online landscape.

Until the early 2010s, surviving friends and family had little choice but to close down an account upon proof of death. But we increasingly rely on digital platforms to store photos, thoughts, life updates, and other data that may be valuable to the grieving. And different companies use different standards to determine who among the living has access to what — terms that may change with the next update. This mostly comes in the form of Facebook and Google gradually adding additional features to address users who pass away.

Being more private than an accessible social media profile, email is the harder nut for survivors to crack. Yahoo famously refused to provide access to the email account of one John Ajemian, who died in a 2006 cycling accident in a Boston suburb. His family sued, but it took until October 2017 for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to rule that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 did not prohibit the Sunnyvale company from releasing the contents to his family. (Before this case and the following conscious push by companies and legislators to address the issue, digital effects defaulted as regular next-of-kin assets — although Yahoo argued that emails were an exception.)

Facebook eventually introduced the legacy contact option in 2015, eight years after rolling out a memorialization tool that prevents fraudulent logins, allows friends and family to share stories on the timeline, and adds “Remembering” before the deceased person’s name. Now, users can choose someone they trust to manage or delete their account without the ability to read messages, add new friends, or delete photos. Google lets users provide a trusted contact who will receive a notice that they may download the company-owned data of the “inactive” person’s choosing, such as Drive documents or emails.

Other companies with sentimental data, like Twitter and Apple, require immediate family members to submit a death certificate in order to close the account. Other agreements simply end when the user is deemed inactive. For example, Dropbox closes accounts after 12 months.

Facebook’s headquarters at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park. (Courtesy photo)

San Rafael lawyer Megan Yip calls these frequent references to user inactivity the “internet’s euphemism for death.”

Having worked in estate planning and on privacy policy at Twitter, Yip is one of few lawyers who can say they specialize in digital assets. Otherwise, the two areas of law figure it out in their own corners.

People tend to call Yip with requests to retrieve a loved one’s data, such as a novel off Google Drive, or to double-check estate plans someone with a high level of tech-savvy made. She’s become something of a liaison between the varying terms-of-service by social media giants and regular families collecting the items of someone they’ve lost. Individuals well-versed in tech are more likely to be prepared. It’s the people with a middling grasp of technology and who don’t document their wishes that concern her.

“The population at large uses their technology so differently,” Yip says. “It’s going to be really hard to determine what’s important and what’s not, unless we have a treasure map.”

That’s unlikely. Only 42 percent of American adults have estate-planning documents such as a will, according to a January study by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Compounding this lack of clarity, 91 percent of people consent to terms-of-service agreements without reading them, according to a 2017 Deloitte survey.

Yip finds that a majority of people simply gain passwords of deceased loved ones — like Hockenson and his son’s email — and don’t contact the companies directly. But such attempts come with the risk of fraud accusations or even of losing the accounts altogether.

“If you don’t take over things legally, then you don’t have a standing to protect those things,” Yip says. “It’s not a legal long-term solution.”

Yip’s clients also often ask what’s appropriate to post about the dead, and when. Etiquette experts like Lizzie Post of the Emily Post Institute say to take cues from the family members. If they’re not posting on birthdays and death anniversaries, they may want to mourn privately.

Cameron Hockenson’s cousin, Eric Spears, set up Cameron’s memorial service page and says Facebook serves as “the modern era’s obituary.” Activity on the page slowed down within weeks, but posts out of the blue haven’t come across as rude surprises.

“Sadness definitely lingers when those posts remind me of Cameron being taken from us so suddenly,” Spears says. “But that sadness is far outweighed by the stories that are shared and the joy we derive from them.”

Facebook has made sure to remove memorialized accounts from the “People You May Know” algorithm and from birthday reminders, a company spokesperson says. Although the legacy contact is in play, the company is still figuring out how to work out the relationship status — say, when a surviving spouse remarries but is still tied to their deceased spouse’s account.

The company is attempting to talk about it more, both internally and with users, because what use is the legacy contact option if no one knows about it? The primary goal is to make things easier for grieving individuals and not further anyone’s suffering. But educating users on how to navigate this topic is not appealing for tech companies to sell users or shareholders on. Silicon Valley’s disposition is notoriously sunny, after all.

Meanwhile, platforms like made-to-disappear Snapchat don’t require much conversation when there isn’t much accumulated data. Yip feels Google and Facebook lead the way on handing control directly to users while they’re still alive — but that’s because they’re the giants in the industry, with vast resources.

“By not really having the conversation about death in Silicon Valley, then they’re not actually building for the next generation,” Yip says. “If no one can inherit this stuff, then what are we doing this all for?”

Eternime promises a path for a version of ourselves to live forever. (Photo courtesy of Eterni.me)

Social media accounts fit into the broader umbrella of “digital assets,” a term that encompasses online accounts or other content — pretty much everything attached to us that’s online. There is no updated federal law that specifically refers to your tweets and Snaps, but states have begun to address this one by one.

The Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit composed of attorneys that aims to clarify ambiguities in jurisprudence, began drafting the 2015 Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) in 2012. Before states began enacting it, digital assets would default to the 32-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act — the same law Yahoo used to argue that it could not allow access to John Ajemian’s emails.

“The federal email privacy law was written so long ago, before we use technology the way we use it today,” Yip says. “It’s still the Wild West, even with the UFADAA.”

Most states have enacted the law itself or a version of it, and eight more have introduced bills already in 2018, a process that Uniform Law is tracking. It’s considered a broad framework that expands the traditional power of a fiduciary to include digital assets.

“All we can do is draft the model,” says Benjamin Orzeske, the Uniform Law Commission’s chief counsel. “Essentially, courts just have to interpret it.”

There are alternative models for legislation, however. Privacy-rights groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology support a rival law that requires the request for access to be more narrowly tailored than just any digital item — but nothing like this has been enacted by any state. Still, the group’s policy analyst Natasha Duarte says their proposed Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act better protects the privacy rights of third parties than RUFADAA does, citing the example of someone who’d exchanged messages with a now-deceased person whose account has been passed on to their mother.

California implemented its version of RUFADAA in January 2017, but Uniform Law considers it only a partial enactment, due to the limits on power given to attorneys or trustees in a situation where the person in question is dead. Southern California Assemblymember Ian Calderon introduced the legislation and found a compromise between the competing digital asset models.

In other words, entrusted survivors have a clear path to access information about the person whose estate they are handling while respecting the privacy choices of that person and the people they communicated with, says Calderon’s office spokesperson, Lerna Kayserian Shirinian. Orzeske and Calderon’s office don’t anticipate any new legislative action on the issue in the next few years, even as new technologies and platforms are sure to emerge. That means even RUFADAA may become outdated before long.

New social media tools are sure to provoke more questions about the ethics of how we deal with death. For example, who is this obsessive digital documentation for? Is it merely for us to enjoy while we live and breathe and click “like,” or is it for everyone we ever interacted with to remember us by? Just how important are our tweets about how our bitter cold-brew coffee tastes, anyway?

In an episode of Black Mirror, a grieving widow, played by Hayley Atwell, brings back her husband, played by Domhnall Gleeson, as a robot based on his online communications.

Hockenson may not be able to re-create his son as a robot to interact with his preserved personality, but at least one platform exists today with similar goals, although with limited reach.

Eternime launched in 2014, and 39,000 people have signed up through the service to collect their memories, stories, and ideas based on access to their online accounts. An avatar would be comprised of scattered photos, videos, and other online posts with manually uploaded written journals for others to access in the future. The public can’t compile a digital copy of themselves for loved ones to interact with just yet, and there is no quick shortcut to make it comprehensive. But beta users report that they do it to save these memories for their future selves, for their family and friends, or — in perhaps a grandiose-sounding reach — for the “future of humanity,” founder and CEO Marius Ursache said by email.

“Nobody can really tell what this can lead to,” Ursache said by email. “What we can say for sure is that we don’t try to replace humans or give false hopes to people grieving, but to create a digital legacy for all of us.”

This flurry of intrigue comes with questions about ethics and how this affects the grieving process. Eternime consulted with a therapist from the British Psychological Society, but Ursache says questions around death have and can be endlessly debated — and that we’re still woefully unprepared to deal with it.

“Technology and innovations have changed a lot of things,” Ursache says. “Death is not one of them.”

John Troyer agrees. The University of Bath professor directs the one-and-only Centre for Death and Society, which researches how topics like technology influence the process. Troyer screens “Be Right Back” in his sociology classes, where it serves as an example that the Black Mirror anthology series says more about humans than about technology. Like beta Eternime users, it shows our reflexive unwillingness to move on or forget one another.

Science fiction and fantasy franchises have provoked similar questions for decades, says Troyer. Harry Potter spent hours looking at his dead parents in the Mirror of Erised but chose to let them go rather than bring them back at a terrible cost.

“We’re getting into these ideas that there needs to be this permanence and I’m not sure that’s the case,” Troyer says. “Why bring the person back — is it for you or is it for them?

“What is it about your memories that are insufficient? I think people just need to be better at saying, ‘I’m sad.’ That’s totally normal and cool, too.”

Across languages and cultures, talking to the dead and leaving photos of them — like the Día de los Muertos altars in Garfield Square — remain healthy parts of the mourning process and of conveying family histories to new generations. Now, those messages to the dead are on their timelines, along with photos and videos.

Two people leave an offering to remember loved ones at the Día De Los Muertos celebration in San Francisco’s Mission District. Aleah Fajardo/ Special To S.F. Examiner

But more tools for people to talk with one another are sure to arrive, potentially rendering today’s modes of communication obsolete. Myspace and Friendster are gone, answering machine tapes with messages from dead parents are outdated, and younger generations prefer texts to phone calls.

Though Facebook and Google are exponentially larger than all previous platforms combined, Troyer says we haven’t figured out what comes after Facebook, after the next platforms and beyond the internet. We haven’t even figured out Facebook’s role in the present.

Until tools like Facebook’s legacy contact are widely known and individuals document precisely what to do with accounts ranging from Google Drive to their Snapfish library, much of that data we may use to connect to someone who’s passed away could be lost. And according to a 2013 McAfee study, the average person values the sum total of all that information at $35,000.

But people lose digital documents all the time when hard drives crash, when files are corrupted, or when they’re simply forgotten or lost in the thousands of other files any given person has squirreled away.

“You try and retrieve what you can [but] we never get it back,” Troyer says. “Just like dead people.”

For all the online tools that helped 70-year-old Bill Hockenson grieve for his son, he says he eventually had to back out of Cameron’s online world. Come May, he’ll be bringing Cameron’s ashes to the Pacific Crest Trail for what was supposed to be a father-and-son trip but which will now be a memorial hike.

“It’s been a tough couple years, but I’m kind of hanging in there,” Hockenson says. “For self-preservation, you have to step away.”

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com |  @idamoj

 

View Comments