What Should We Do With The Online Profiles Of The Deceased?

11:05 minutes

a gravestone with the facebook, twitter, and google logos on it
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Facebook may not be attracting new users like it once did, but it’s still the largest social networking site by a country mile, with 2.38 billion monthly users. Many of us have spent close to a decade (or more) carefully curating our digital personas on the site.

But what happens when we die?

There is already an imperfect system in place that allows for a Facebook user to establish a kind of “digital estate plan” for their profile. You can designate a legacy contact, a friend or family member, who will be allowed to download all the data from your account. Or you can request that your profile be memorialized or just deleted after you die.

But that decision is up to the individual, and many Facebook users don’t make a plan for their social media lives to continue after they’ve passed on. Inactive profiles are left to Facebook to hold onto and store as long as it’s profitable. But what will happen when that number reaches into the billions? According to a new study out in the journal Big Data & Society, a minimum of 1.4 billion Facebook users will pass away before the year 2100.

Since social media is, in many ways, the record keeper of our lives, so it may be time to start thinking about how we preserve that record for the future. How should we think about the online profiles of the deceased? As the person’s property or as their remains? Should they be inherited or passed on? Preserved or deleted?

Dr. Carl Ohman, lead study author and doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute joins Ira to discuss planning for the digital afterlife. He’s joined by Dr. Candi Cann, associate professor at Baylor University and author of the book Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Candi Cann

Candi Cann is an associate professor in Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Carl Ohman

Carl Ohman is a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute in Oxford, United Kingdom.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Facebook may not be attracting new members like it once did, but it’s still the largest social networking site with over 2 billion users. Think about how much time you have spent carefully curating your digital self on this site. Social media is many ways the record keeper of our lives. And together with all the fake news, and hate speech, and garbage on the internet, it is a record of our current 21st century society. 

And right now that record is stored and owned by Facebook. They will hold and store this data as long as it makes sense for them to do so. But what happens when these billions of Facebook profiles are no longer consumers, but rather, dead people from the past. According to a new study published this week, a minimum of 1 and 1/2 billion Facebook users will pass away before the year 2100. I’d say that most people listening to this program now are among you. 

How should we think about the online profiles of the deceased? As the person’s property or their remains? Should they be inherited, or passed on, preserved, or deleted? And a lot to think about. And here to sort through with me are my guests. Dr. Karl Oman, doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute. Lead author on the study out this week in the journal Big Data in Society. Welcome to Science Friday. 

KARL OMAN: Thanks for having me. I hope you can hear me all right. I’m calling from the UK. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll tighten up the strings on the tin cans there. Dr. Candi Cann. Is associate professor at Baylor Disciplinary Core and the Department of Religion at Baylor University. Dr. Cann, welcome back to Science Friday. 

DR. CANDY CANN: Thanks, Ira. It’s great to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Karl, the question of what we should do with all the data we produce on social media seems to point back to, how do we view this stuff we produce? Is it our property, or is it part of us, or who owns it? 

KARL OMAN: Well, as long as you’re alive, you and Facebook co-own your data. Now, of course, this changes when you die when they become the sole owner data that you left behind. So it does not befall to your family members or to your kin. 

IRA FLATOW: And, Cann, do you agree with that? 

DR. CANDY CANN: Well, yes. It’s currently dictated by the platform. And so whichever platform you’re posting on has ultimate control over that data. 

IRA FLATOW: But why is it not like, let’s say a copyright on a book, or a song, or an estate, or a shoe box of old photos. Why do you not retain those ownerships after you pass away? 

KARL OMAN: Well, it’s quite complicated with the data that we produce on social media. We must not forget that Facebook data includes also messenger data. Which is often some of the most private messages that we send. So Facebook users trust that Facebook will not disclose their data to anyone else. And this includes family members. 

And normally, a family member would be someone to trust. But there are plenty of families where you would not like your children, or any of your [INAUDIBLE] see what you’ve been writing and doing on Facebook. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Candi, what does Facebook allow you to do with the profile of someone who has died? 

DR. CANDY CANN: So on Facebook, and the same thing with Instagram, since they are a child company of Facebook. They’re owned by Facebook. You can designate a legacy contact who will then take your data and either memorialize the site where you have posted pictures, and posted messages, and stuff like that. 

And then what happens is, you can’t add anything to that site. So it becomes memorialized. Basically it’s archived. But it becomes a place where you can visit and re-visit, say the anniversary of the death, or the birthday of the deceased person. So a lot of people use these sites as a way to also help mourn the deceased. 

IRA FLATOW: Hm. How do you feel about that, Karl? 

KARL OMAN: I think that’s essentially a good thing on an individual level that Facebook allows other Facebook users to take care of their [INAUDIBLE] I actually think Facebook has done a really good job navigating this space. It’s really quite difficult for them, because they have so many stakeholders to think about. It’s the privacy and the dignity of the deceased. It’s the feeling of loss from the loved ones. But it’s also the original contract which they signed with their users on. 

And last but not least, we must remember that Facebook is ultimately a corporate commercial enterprise. So whatever solutions they come up with, It needs to be commercially sustainable for them. 

IRA FLATOW: Uh-huh. So Candi, what happens though for the tons of cases where people haven’t left anyone in charge? I mean what happens to those profiles? 

DR. CANDY CANN: See that’s when it becomes complicated. Because then you basically become an internet ghost, right. I think I mentioned this to you before. So when my grandfather died, no one memorialized his page, and some people didn’t know he died. 

And so people would go and post to him and tell him happy birthday. So it’s really disturbing, because he wasn’t around anymore. Or he would invite me to play video games with him, and of course, he wasn’t around. But I was still getting these invites from him. 


IRA FLATOW: Well, should anybody be able to gather data from a profile of someone who has died? Let’s say for research or historical analysis, Candi. 

DR. CANDY CANN: I think it can be really valuable data someday. And I know that Karl’s study discusses this a bit. It definitely democratizes the access to history, right. So right now all the history we have from the past is basically written by the victors of history. And the privileged. The educated. Those who had access to power. 

So Facebook data in 100 years, we’re going to have an amazing resource of data about people that live today. 

IRA FLATOW: But Karl, how do we not know, and I’ll ask this of Candi also. If there’s so much junk and bad factual news on there. How valuable will that be besides telling us what a bunch of liars we were? 

KARL OMAN: I think the real value for this data really comes from comparing different sources. [INAUDIBLE] So seeing for instance, how a person portrays themselves on their Facebook timeline or Instagram is sort of comparing that with what they actually click on, what they do, the kind of activities that go on in other parts of the site. 

I would just like to add a qualifier to this the democratization of history. I totally agree with Candi that previously the data that we had about historical figures is basically affluent men who could afford to leave something behind. Whereas now, we will have access to a much broader demographic population. The problem though, is that this data is only valuable in aggregates, and it’s only Facebook that controls all this data. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking about what happens to your Facebook data after you pass away with Karl Oman and Candi Cann. Here’s a tweet from Kent. 

He said, “I definitely want my Facebook profile to go on forever, or as long as it can. And everything I put on it is designed knowing that it could go on forever. I worked in a law firm that did estate planning, and we started advising our clients to make specific documents stating what they wanted to do with their online world.” 

I guess you could put it in your will, could you not? 

DR. CANDY CANN: Yes, and you should. You should definitely as a part of estate planning. But less than half of all Americans, at least, have a will. So this is something that I really want to urge everyone out there to please make a will, because it will definitely ease the burden on your loved ones, and your family, your friends. 

But part of that will can be digital estate planning. And explaining who should control the way that the digital estate should be archived or memorialized. And who should have access to that information. 

IRA FLATOW: Karl, I’m sorry. Karl, is there no case to be made for saying, you know, when you die, your info dies with you. It gets buried along with you. 

KARL OMAN: You mean as standard regulations? 

IRA FLATOW: Yes, or you could make that as an option. 

KARL OMAN: Oh, I think that you can certainly make that as an option. Facebook allows the legacy contact to completely delete the profile. I’m sure that anyone could put that in their will, too. There are these so-called cleaning companies that you can subscribe to, and you can commit what they call digital suicide. 

So they basically cleanse the web from any data that belongs to you. This is more common in Europe, where we have the stronger data protection laws and the right to be forgotten than they have in the US. 

IRA FLATOW: But could you not make it as an option on Facebook to, when you pass away, your stuff passes away with you? Click. And have Facebook get rid of it for you. 

KARL OMAN: They do have such an option. You can actually choose. If someone submits a death certificate on you, the profile will be immediately deleted. The problem is that, of course, if you’re dead, you can’t do it yourself. Someone else has to do it for you. 

IRA FLATOW: Candi, last question. Does it make it hard for people to remember the dead when we don’t have any physical or digital record? 

DR. CANDY CANN: I think so, but I’m part of the continuing bond theory camp. Which believes that continuing some kind of relationship with the dead in some way allows you to move forward in the grieving process. There are those that believe that’s unhealthy, but I’m definitely a big proponent of the continuing some kind of relationship with the dead. And being able to talk to them. And being able to revisit their photos. And being able to think about them. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, we used to have our photos in a shoe box, and you can always pull them out. But now you can’t do that. And that’s why this is so much more complicated. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today. 

Karl Oman is a lead study author and doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute in Oxford, UK. And Candi Cann is an associate professor at Baylor University and author of Virtual Afterlives– Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century. Thank you both for taking time to be. 

DR. CANDY CANN: Thank you, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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