What Happens to Your Social Media Account After You Die
and why you should care
The heart of social media is to be able to share ourselves—our memories, our thoughts, our history—with the communities that matter most to us. It’s fun, spreads information, and is the platform for engaging with others with whom you wouldn’t normally interact. It’s not an exaggeration to say our social media is a digital extension of ourselves. As with every new technology, unforeseen problems and questions arise, including issues of ownership. Nowhere are these problems more evident than in the complicated management of social media accounts of people who have died.
Whether intended or not, social media is property, and as with any property there are questions of whom a social media account belongs to after you die. Admittedly it’s morbid, but worth thinking about for important reasons. In my family alone, my mother prefers to be cremated, my father wants a traditional funeral and burial, and my brother would prefer what he terms a “celebration” and doesn’t care what happens to his body. Despite their differences, each of them has clearly articulated their specific wants post-mortem. The same should be true in social media. Do you want your page to close down? Be reconfigured as a memorial? Perhaps you want your family to have access to your pictures and be able to save them, but not your private messages? If your page closes down, does that mean the Twitter thread conversations and tagged memories are removed from your friends’ history? If it’s left up, will it be awkward when your birthday rolls around every year?
Given that social media is supposed to be an enjoyable way to connect us with the world, these are difficult questions to address. But the more we reconcile the belief that our social media presence is as much a possession as a bank account, the easier it will be to address these circumstances. As we have the right to bequeath our physical possessions to anyone we chose, social scientists like Edina Harbinaj and Lillian Edwards believe there should be a codified legal protection for post-mortem privacy: “the right of a person to preserve and control what becomes of his or her reputation, dignity, integrity, secrets or memory after death.” Just like a will, you are not required to have one; but if you do, the law must respect it after your passing. While in the US online data is a protected entity, in the EU and other countries it is not.
Some social media platforms already have their own policies, but the will of the deceased should override any options chosen on those sites. Google/Gmail has an inactive account manager feature where if you have been inactive on the site for a specific period, Google can release your information to designated contacts. Facebook and Instagram both allow for memorialization of accounts and a specified family member or friend can manage it. In addition, they can have access to some information like photos, but not all activity like private messages. Twitter specifically requires a family member to request the closure of an account, otherwise it will remain open. Unfortunately, these options are woefully inadequate and don’t respect the vagaries in people’s relationships to their families and their online presence. Perhaps I would rather a friend oversee my Twitter account than verified family member. And while I’d be happy to let my friends keep some of our more raucous photos from college, I don’t want them falling into the hands of my very traditional grandmother. If my death is a result of foul play, I would want the police to have access to private messages and emails, but only if warranted.
In this digital age, our choices are slim but need to grow to reflect the complexity of social media’s presence in our lives. Instead of opting into a company policy, really think about how you want your account, and thus your possessions and memory, to be handled. You wouldn’t just default into a bank policy about who has access to your accounts once you’re gone, so why do that here. Be specific. What part of each account belongs to someone? And maybe there is a timer? It would be most beneficial if social media platforms allowed us to specify what we personally want to have done in the event of our death. Until then, consider making it part of your will, protecting you and your legacy after you’re gone.