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Estate Planning: Preparing for the Digital Afterlife

The emergence of digital ghosts on social media

Social media platforms have become integral to our daily lives, but what happens to these digital profiles when a user passes away? Research by Carl J. Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, sheds light on this evolving issue. Öhman’s study, titled “Are the Dead Taking over Facebook? A Big Data Approach to the Future of Death Online”, reveals a startling projection: if Facebook’s growth continues at its current rate, the number of deceased users’ profiles could surpass 4.9 billion by 2100, potentially outnumbering living users​​​​​​. This phenomenon underscores the rapid pace at which digitally stored information is outgrowing the world economy, including the accumulation of what Öhman refers to as “online ghosts”​​.

The legal and ethical implications

As the digital remnants of deceased individuals grow, they present unique challenges in the realms of privacy, estate planning, and digital heritage. Traditional notions of estate planning are now expanding to include digital assets and social media profiles. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have developed specific procedures for handling the accounts of deceased members. For example, Facebook offers options to delete or memorialise accounts, allowing for tribute messages on memorial pages. Users can direct their executors to manage their digital presence posthumously, either by maintaining a memorial status or ensuring prompt deletion of their accounts​​.

Social media platforms’ policies on digital legacies

Each major social media platform has its own approach to handling the accounts of deceased users. Facebook’s memorialisation feature and the option to select a legacy contact provide a way for loved ones to manage the profile of the deceased. Instagram, owned by Facebook, follows similar policies. Twitter, on the other hand, does not currently offer memorialisation but allows family members to request the deactivation of a deceased user’s account. Google has an Inactive Account Manager feature, enabling users to decide what happens to their data if they become inactive for a specified period. Apple also allows users to add a legacy contact to their Apple ID, providing an access key for data retrieval after the user’s passing​​​​​​​​.

Practical steps

To navigate the digital afterlife effectively, it is recommended that individuals include digital assets in their estate planning. This process involves deciding who will have access to passwords and account management and specifying the desired handling of social media profiles and data. Setting up legacy contacts or inactive account managers on supported sites can greatly assist personal representatives in managing digital assets posthumously. When dealing with the closure of a deceased individual’s social media accounts, it’s important to protect sensitive information and be mindful of the content shared on memorial pages​​.

Embracing our digital heritage

The ongoing expansion of our digital footprints, coupled with the inevitability of human mortality, necessitates a re-evaluation of how we handle our digital legacies. As social media platforms continue to evolve, so too must our approaches to digital estate planning, privacy, and the ethical management of digital afterlives. By proactively addressing these concerns, we can ensure that our digital heritage is preserved or managed according to our wishes, reflecting the growing intersection between our online and physical existences.

Reference list:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2053951719842540#:~:text=We%20project%20the%20future%20accumulation,9%20billion
https://arxiv.org/abs/1811.03416
https://www.nvrlaw.co.za/OurInsights/ArticleDetail.aspx?Title=To-Facebook-out-of-the-grave-or-not
https://www.ictc-ctic.ca/articles/the-digital-afterlife-an-interview-with-carl-ohman#:~:text=Digitally%20stored%20information%20already%20grows,the%20century%2C%20outnumbering%20living%20users
https://www.justia.com/estate-planning/end-of-life-decisions/planning-your-digital-legacy/
https://www.findlaw.com/forms/resources/estate-planning/how-to-handle-social-media-accounts-after-death.html

While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the writers of the articles nor the publisher will bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on information or recommendations contained herein. Our material is for informational purposes.

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