Dealing with Digital Death
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Have you ever considered how much of your life is online? E-mail and social media content, intellectual property, financial transactions and accounts are just a few components of an individual’s digital identity. But what do you do with the online assets of a loved one who has died, and how can you control your own digital footprint so others won’t be left wondering how to handle it?

With the creation of social media and innovative websites, there’s also scope for memorializing loved ones in new and lasting ways. AVG’s guide looks at these issues and:

  • Creating a social media will
  • What to do with a loved one’s content, such as pictures or e-mail accounts
  • How to delete or transfer ownership of commercial and social accounts

Free download in PDF format.

Excerpt

“It’s an emerging philosophical debate and it’s gaining urgency. How do you want to manage your digital footprint - the collection of memories that encapsulates you - after you’re gone? And what if you’re unexpectedly left to do the same for a loved one? Where do you even begin?”

About Author
Judy Bitterli

Judith Bitterli has more than 25 years executive experience and is now Senior Vice President at AVG. Judith is also a former owner of three companies and is steeped in the joys and travails of start-ups and sustaining growing small businesses. She blogs at http://blogs.avg.com


It’s ephemeral, ill-defined. A memory is impossible to replicate from one person to another, attached as it is to an individual’s every thought, emotion and life experience. So what of digital memories? If an image or a string of words remains forever, is it still a memory or does it become something more tangible?

It takes seconds to create online accounts, but have you considered what happens to them when you die? Think now about what you need to do in order to make the process as painless as possible for loved ones.



Memory

Increasingly, we are all constructing our own personal digital profiles: our photos - sometimes from the grainiest pregnancy ultrasound photo all the way through adulthood; our bodies of work; our thoughts, dreams, fears, questions, casual asides; the networks of friends we align ourselves with. All these elements form how we appear outwardly and will remain, long after we’re gone, in a configuration that’s much more substantial than mere memories.

These digital advancements are eliciting an emerging philosophical debate and it’s gaining urgency. How do you manage your digital legacy - the collection of memories that encapsulates you - after you’re gone? And what if you’re unexpectedly left to do the same for a loved one? Where do you even begin?

It makes for uncomfortable thinking, and most of us won’t have considered it. The e-mail accounts. Social profiles. Personal blogs. Online accounts with the iTunes or Android stores.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But the good news is, advice is available and there are services to help you plan for or manage this delicate situation.

Digital technology also offers innovative ways to gather some of the most intimate aspects of a person, such as cherished photos or music, to share in tribute. A legacy, in memoriam.




We all have to deal with death at some point in our lives and a loved one’s digital presence will have an effect on the grieving process. But what do you need to take into account during such times?

Dealing with Digital Death

In bereavement, others feel compelled to send messages to their loved one’s e-mail address or listen to that person’s voicemails.




Considerations

Few can fail to be moved by stories of parents, spouses and adult children or siblings struggling to come to terms with their loved one’s digital identity after a difficult loss. Where that person might have been a frequent Facebook updater suddenly there’s a void, yet some essence of them remains. In bereavement, others feel compelled to send messages to their loved one’s e-mail address or listen to that person’s voicemails.

Is there a right time to remove those elements of a person’s digital identity, or should they be left as a memorial? And where do you start if you’re not sure how far your loved one’s digital life extended? There could be multiple e-mail accounts, social network profiles, gamer or virtual-world identities, blogs and financial details stored with online retailers and other services.

Not only are there the questions of what information is online and how to find it, but what about that person’s wishes? Who is best to administer a digital sweep that could reveal sensitive and possibly contentious information? And what are the legal or financial ramifications? Legal systems across the world are still playing catch-up and families have had to turn to obtaining court orders in some instances to gain access to accounts.

Account settings tend to be strict around access although some of the bigger online brands are putting in place processes to deal with such issues. But should all assets – offline and online – be passed over to an estate executor at the time of someone’s passing? Or do online services have a responsibility to protect users’ privacy, even after death?



A number of services now exist to give individuals more control over what happens to their personal digital information and to reduce the decisions to be made by those left behind.

Dealing with Digital Death - Where to start?

Once your digital affairs are in order you may want to consider to what extent you will or won’t retain an online presence after death.




Starting Point

The first recommendation is to let your wishes be known in a legally binding context. Sometimes called a social media will, the idea is similar to the traditional legal document except it stipulates what should happen to your online content and who should be the executor, granted with your passwords and information about accessing all your accounts.

A template can be downloaded from USA.gov, which provides a simple, straightforward outline of how to get started. Then it’s just a question of choosing and notifying an executor and deciding where such a document should be stored.

It’s recommended that people back-up and archive content they want to preserve. We can safely assume the technology that exists today will be obsolete in the future, and when it disappears so will anything – photos, recordings, written material – that isn’t available in hard copies or a contemporary format.

Digital services can provide a bundle of plans, such as archiving, notifying and transferring information to an executor, and data deleting.

Once your digital affairs are in order you may want to consider to what extent you will or won’t retain an online presence after death. It could be tempting to think: What do I care what happens to my digital presence after I’m gone? But try to think of those left behind, who might find such reminders a painful or even frustrating challenge to contend with. Making it clear for them will give you the peace of mind of knowing your information will be in good hands.



The world of social media thrives on the content of individuals – but what should happen to all the photos, videos and text after a person’s death?

Ethical Debates

Do we preserve everything for posterity, as our ancestors might have done, or pick and choose only things that present the best, most honest depiction?




Ethical Debates

A significant question is just what happens to content? If it’s on sites such as Facebook or photosharing services such as Instagram, they can do what they like with any ‘intellectual property’ shared there. That means any musical performances exclusively recorded and viewed on YouTube could disappear at the site’s discretion.

A number of sites market themselves as safe and secure archiving services, but some argue there will be a need for today’s personal images and written materials to be made public in the future, much as the works of writers, politicians and others are bequeathed to universities, libraries and museums. By the same token, there’s nothing to say your child’s digital baby photos, for instance, will still be available decades from now.

Particularly when it comes to photographs and video footage, other questions arise around the topics of archiving and digital legacies. Once someone has passed away, what should become of their images? If you have access to the actual photo or video files, would the person in question want them preserved and, if so, how?

Would they want a video of them in their last years shared with future generations and strangers, or would they have chosen to be remembered as young and healthy? Do we preserve everything for posterity, as our ancestors might have done, or pick and choose only things that present the best, if not most honest, depiction?

These and other debates require measured consideration that is difficult at the best of times, and if possible might be best left until emotions aren’t running so high. It might be tempting to make quick decisions but be aware what could be lost.



The process for deleting accounts differs markedly across online brands so here’s some useful advice on where to start for some of online’s key players...

Google’s inactive Account Manager
Google’s Inactive Account Manager instructs Google what to do with a person’s digital assets. Alternatively, a trusted loved one can be nominated to receive data, such as content from Gmail, Google+ and YouTube from Google’s servers. More information can be found here.


Amazon
Amazon and Kindle require the user’s e-mail address and a copy of the death certificate to be sent to: partner-phones-transfer@ amazon.com. Alternatively, an executor could contact customer service with the user’s account, e-mail address and billing address: 1-866-321-8851 or 1-866-216-1072. Also, with the user’s e-mail address and password, the executor should be able to access content, such as things stored on the Cloud Drive.


iTunes
Apple’s license agreement states that media purchased from the company cannot be transferred to another user, but Apple tend to be cooperative. Contact Apple here.


Ebay
Requires a court order to delete a user’s account. The auction site can be contacted on: 1-866-540-3229 between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. Pacific Time, seven days a week.


Netflix
By its own admission, Netflix has nothing on its site to explain how to deactivate a user’s account. But a customer service representative said that with the user’s name or account information, Netflix will be able to cancel an account. The 24-hour Netflix customer service number is: 866-579-7172.


PayPal
An executor will need to send copies of the death certificate, the will and a copy of the executor’s photo ID. More information can be found here.




... And how to tackle the sensitive issue of social media profiles.

Pinterest
When an executor contacts Pinterest to confirm a user’s death, the account will be suspended to prevent it being logged into. Public boards and pins will remain visible, and others “may retain and continue to use, store, display, reproduce, re-pin, modify, create derivative works, perform, and distribute any User Content that other users have stored or shared through Pinterest.”


YouTube
To delete a user’s YouTube channel, the executor would need to sign into the channel, go to “advanced account settings” and click “delete channel,” where the sign-in details will be required again. Any videos, messages and comments will be permanently deleted. More information available here or call: 1 650-253-0000.


Instagram
If the username and password aren’t available, submit a report to the help center. With the user’s information, an account can be deleted by going here and clicking on the username or profile picture in the upper-right corner; selecting “edit profile” from the dropdown menu; and clicking “delete my account” in the lowerright corner. Content will be removed permanently.


Flickr
An executor may need to have a username and password to delete a Flickr account. Once in “Your Account,” scroll down to “delete your Flickr account” and follow the instructions. Any photos or content will no longer be publically accessible and will be erased from Flickr’s servers.



Increasingly, social spaces are morphing into an online gathering place where followers can mourn, remember and memorialize those they loved or admired. It’s impossible to accurately calculate how many of these pages exist – or even the number of social profiles that remain after the deaths of the people who established them – but they will continue to grow into the millions.

Digital Death

While shutting down a loved one’s digital accounts may not be straightforward, neither is it easy for someone else to access those platforms.




Ever-changing

It’s an issue that Facebook is attempting to address. Its memorializing option makes a user’s profile more private, so only confirmed friends can see or locate it in a search and sensitive information, such as contact details and status updates, is removed.

But memorializing or deactivating an account can be a lengthy and complicated process, especially for anyone not familiar with the social media sphere. Each social network – from Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube and beyond – will have different policies and ways of closing down accounts. But because the internet is an ever-changing environment, there is no uniform resource for people wishing to settle the online affairs of those who have passed away.

The same goes for e-mail accounts, personal blogs and websites. But while shutting down a loved one’s digital accounts may not be straightforward, neither is it easy for someone else to access those platforms; it’s relatively unlikely your loved one’s words, images or ideas could be appropriated or misused. Your loved one may have been an active eBay seller, with outstanding transactions or money to be collected from PayPal; or they could be in credit with music- or video-streaming services, such as iTunes, or even online games.

If they had a personal e-commerce website or sold items through sites such as Etsy, transactions will need to be handled by the executor of the deceased’s estate. This reinforces the value of sharing digital documents and passwords ahead of time.



At a time when grief is raw, it can be tremendously difficult looking at pictures of and, particularly, listening to music files stored by your loved one. At the same time, some will find comfort in these touchstones; they offer a connection and possibly an insight to the person who is no longer here.

Remembrance

For those who struggle with what to say in a eulogy or how to write a condolence card, there are tips and ideas available.




Remembrance

Creating a photo montage or a playlist of your loved one’s favorite music isn’t difficult to do online, and many funeral planners can cater to your wishes. Both mediums invite others to share stories of their own memories and can open a dialogue while leaving a lasting tribute.

But music preferences are deeply personal. If you’re charged with choosing music for a funeral service, you may not have anything more to go on than a vague idea that your loved one appreciated classical compositions but wasn’t religious. A quick web search can offer an array of options and considerations, and family members and friends may appreciate being asked for their thoughts on what would best suit the service and the person being honored.

For those who struggle with what to say in a eulogy or how to write a condolence card, there are tips and ideas available through a simple web search which will deliver results such as this: http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Eulogy-Speech.

Finally, technology can provide comfort in other ways. In addition to connecting with others experiencing grief or loss and providing help, advice and real-world resources, digital technology can bring people together in ways that weren’t previously possible. If you suffer a loss and have no way of making it to a memorial service, it might be streamed live through a private web channel or a video conference service such as Skype.

Of course none of these technological advancements can take the place of the physical and real-life emotional support we need in such difficult times. Care should be taken not to become too dependent on and isolated by, digital alternatives.



Resources

AVG Vault
AVG Vault https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.avg.vault - lets you hide and store your most private or secret digital valuables on your device. Whether you have pictures to keep private, credit card details or personal IDs to protect or a whole host of other files, you can lock them where only you can access them.


Dead Social
Messaging service DeadSocial: http://www.deadsoci.al/index.php Create a series of messages that are published to social networks only once you pass away. You can also release unseen video and audio messages – and the service is totally free.


NoLo
Leave meaningful instructions for your executor at http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/a-plan-your-digital-legacy.html. Instructions can cover social networks, blogs, presence in online communities, music, photos or other files, seller accounts, and access to bank accounts or utilities.


My Wonderful Life
Share stories with your loved ones: https://www.mywonderfullife.com Plan your funeral, leave letters for loved ones, share memories, upload favourite photos and even write your own obituary.


Everplans
Memorial service advice from Everplans: http://www.everplans.com/ Provides tips and advice on a number of considerations, including choosing music for a memorial service.





Comfort can sometimes be found in the least obvious places and, while there may be the odd negative reaction, digital guidance can be a true solace.

Take your time

As with most things, it’s probably best not to rush into making a decision about your loved one’s digital legacy.




Take your time

While there is some comfort in being able to read the memories or condolences of others online, it’s an unfortunate truth that with the benefits of technology also come the downsides.

It’s inevitable that some unscrupulous individuals and companies may look to exploit people who are vulnerable because of a bereavement and/or due to a limited understanding of technology. As with most things, it’s probably best not to rush into making a decision about your loved one’s digital legacy.

Seek trusted, real-world advice and opinion and deal with things such as deleting e-mail accounts and social media profiles when you or others involved are truly ready to make such difficult decisions.

If you’re at least somewhat comfortable with the internet, do a search for things such as how to deactivate a LinkedIn account; not only should you find the latest recommendations, but you will likely stumble upon other articles or blog posts that will help you decide how best to proceed.

You may also find comfort in some online forums, such as the one found at http://forums.grieving.com where practical advice and support are just a click or two away.

Sections on the site include dealing with the loss of loved ones – a parent, a child, a sibling – as well as other areas such as legal issues and emotions around the anger and grief you might feel at a given time. The site’s Facebook group, titled Grief Support, is also worth looking at and potentially participating in when you feel ready.


Despite our constantly changing digital world, some things remain the same: A cherished keepsake; a handwritten note on the back of a yellowing photo; soothing embraces and treasured memories. We can make the most of the world we’re in today without losing those essential human elements that make life so precious, so enduring. No matter how it looks tomorrow.

With a few tips, you can make the experience even better for everyone concerned.


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