Digital Death and Digital Afterlife

23. February 2016 Agnieszka M. Walorska (@agaw)

We’ve all come across the subject “death” on the Internet at least once, I suppose. After the passing of a relative, we search online for information on what exactly to do in such a situation. It’s also not unusual, that in case of death of an acquaintance or a distant relative, we exchange condolences online. We do it, for example, via social media.

But most of us probably didn’t consider the relevance of the Internet in the context of our own death. But this context becomes more and more relevant for a growing percentage of the society. It affects everyone, who is using the Internet and leaving his digital imprints and data. And that’s not only the kids anymore. More and more of the 60- or 70-years old — who are kind of more likely to die — use different digital channels as well. So what happens with all this channels after we pass away? Is the physical death being followed by the digital death?

1 out of 30 Facebook-accounts belong to a dead person

More than 3 billion people use the Internet worldwide. 2 billion people are registered in at least one social media platform. 1.4 billion of them are active on Facebook. More than 10.000 Facebook users die every day. This leads to the fact, that by now, about one out of 30 Facebook-accounts belong to a dead person.

Predictions say, that by the year 2100 there will be more profiles of dead people on Facebook than of those who are still alive — if Facebook keeps growing. If it stops to grow, there will be the same number of dead and living people on Facebook in about 50 years. If I’m still alive in 50 years, given that Facebook still exists, I’ll be probably surrounded by the accounts of my dead friends…

Surrounded by accounts of dead friends

Ok, let’s not think about this vision for now. Let’s focus on what happens to all these accounts and data we produce in our lifetime after we pass away.

I could say “Why should care, I’m dead anyway”. But in the most cases — it’s not that easy.

You know, last summer, I was trying to get out of Berlin on my racing bike to have a nice long ride outside of the city.The driver of a white Mercedes going with about 120 kmh lost control over the car. He hit two motorcyclists and ran. And one of the motorcyclists hit the ground just centimeters away from me. If I had been a little bit faster, the car or the motorcycle would have crashed directly into me. Over.

What happens next is quite easy for me, as I don’t exist anymore (or I’m in heaven, hell, reincarnated — I’ll find it out when the time comes). But it’s not that easy for my family and people who cared about me.

As I’m neither married nor have kids, my parents would be my closest surviving relatives. It’s hard to imagine something worse than the dead of your own child. And especially in a case like this, the issue of the digital remains becomes extra volatile. Most parents, whose children are now between 20 to 40 years old, can’t exactly be considered “Digital Natives”, mine included.

They probably wouldn’t even think of my digital remains at first. As they started using Facebook themselves, they will probably thing about my facebook profile at some point of time. After a few weeks my friends would probably start to inform them that my Instagram-, twitter-, LinkedIn-profiles are still online. And even then, after they are aware of this issue, they’d still be clueless on what to do with my accounts and my data.

Digital Remains

They’d ask themselves, whether there might be more accounts, in which I keep on living digitally. They wouldn’t know, how to get the login data to my profiles and generally what to do with these profiles. What would I have preferred?

What to do with the digital remains?

Deleted Data

Should all my data be deleted? And what would it mean to delete all the data? I mean — you don’t throw away the “analogue” pictures, postcards or letters from a person who passed away. But there are no, or at least very little of these “analogue” memories of people like myself. Pictures of us are on Facebook or Instagram, we post status updates instead of sending postcards, and use a number of messaging services. Would it be fair if my parents decided to delete all my digital memories without considering that for most of my friends it’s the only memory they will have?

Then maybe it’s better to leave everything as it is? But this one is not so easy as well. A friend of mine passed away few months ago. It was not a very close friend, one you see once or twice a year, sometimes invite to a party and so on. His Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. still look like he was alive. I invited him to my birthday party via Facebook, not knowing, that he was already dead at this time. And now, that I know, he’s not there anymore — it feels very creepy. And it will probably feel even stranger, when I get the birthday reminder on Facebook and LinkedIn in December. How will his parents or close friends feel when they see silly birthday wishes on his wall, posted by people who are not aware of his death?

And what about this disgusting phenomenon of “social necrophilia”, which you can frequently observe on Facebook? People frequently pretend to have known the deceased person better then they really did and to respond in an overly emotional manner, to show others how deeply they grieve. That may feel fake and unpleasant to the close friends and relatives as well.

So maybe leaving everything as it is, is not the optimal option as well?

Then maybe all my profiles should be set to “memorial-profiles” (like Facebook for example offers it)? But then again — not every provider offers this.

And what about my post-mortem privacy? Would it be fine for me, if they’d get access to all my pictures, music, videos or documents on Dropbox? Would I want them to read my e-mails or Facebook messages? For sure, there would be a lot of different opinions on this matter. But, do I want to cause fights in my family even after my death?

Probably not. And I also don’t want them to find themselves in the situation of this father, who has recorded this moving message last year.

Berlin’s appeal went viral, reaching over 3 million views by now, and Facebook indeed contacted him and offered him the creation of a memorial video for his deceased son. This incident prompted Facebook to reconsider their approach on how to handle the memorization of the deceased users’ accounts.

For a long time Facebook’s policy regarding its deceased users was quite simple. In a quite long and annoying procedure family members could provide the proof of death and ask to have the account deactivated or to create a memorial page. That’s it. But while the grieving father’s appeal was probably not the only reason for some small but important changes in Facebook’s policy, it might have been kind of a trigger. Currently, for example, relatives can request the look back video, without having to beg for it in the way Berlin had to.

And there is more to come. Facebook users in the U.S. are now offered a possibility of taking care of their afterlife while still alive. Which means they can decide, if their accounts should be deleted after their death or if they wish to designate a “legacy contact”. This legacy contact will then, after the verification of the users’ death, have limited access to her Facebook account. She will be able to change the deceased person’s profile picture and cover photo and to write a special post, which will appear on top of the timeline (like for example a memorial service announcement). She will also be allowed to accept friend-requests from real-life friends and family who weren’t connected to the deceased on Facebook yet.

Facebook Legacy Contact

Google introduced a solution for the digital legacy management already in 2013. Their solution is called the “Inactive Account Manager”. The idea behind that is to let me decide on what to do, when my account hasn’t been accessed for a certain amount of time. I can define a so-called „timeout period“ of between 3 and 18 months and the actions which should occur after the expiration of this period. For example I can decide to have my entire Google-related data deleted or choose up to 10 trusted people, who will gain access to and/or receive the data from my Google Accounts or/and define an auto-replay.

Shortly before the end oft he „timeout period“, I’ll receive a warning text message or an e-mail to a different e-mail account. If I don’t sign back in after that, the selected actions will be carried out.

Sound’s logical, doesn’t it? Not entirely… The minimum timeout is 3 months — there are 100 possible reasons for not logging in into any of the google products for 3 months. I could have a severe, but not deadly accident or illness; I could have traveled to North Korea; I could have decided to spend some time in a monastery and so on.

But that’s just Facebook and Google. But how to deal with services like Airbnb or other online platforms which allow users to share offline things? Like for example p2p car sharing, like Getaround?

Besides these two, I have accounts on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, XING, Instagram, Pinterest, spotify, runtastic, evernote, foursquare, tinder and probably many more, which I don’t even have in mind anymore. And I have to define what should happen to each and every account after my death. And, what’s even worse — when I die, my relatives have to deal with each and every provider separately to implement my will.

That’s why especially in the U.S., but also in Europe there more and more approaches, which try to take care of our Digital Afterlife.

Here are some examples:

Via SecureSafe you can store your logins and data and determine a responsible recipient, who is granted access to them after you die. The Website perpetu offers a setup of a final message or status update for your various accounts. Platforms like Netarius or mywonderfulllife you allow the user to create a detailed legacy plan.

Digital Afterlife Solutions

You can see that not only differences in the spectrum of functionalities, but also, that they are following contradictory design principles. The designs vary from dark murky to playful. For me it’s actually quite surprising, how some of those providers present themselves. I mean, I don’t care now, when I use such tools to define my legacy. But the idea is, that they actually are going to be used by my grieving friends and family members after I pass away! I’m not quite sure if what they want to see is a funny comic figure waving from the sky…

Designing for the afterlife

But why is it so? Why are these approaches so contradictory and why some of them are even quite distasteful? Frankly, it doesn’t matter if the subject is about the digital or the “analogue” death — death simply is a precarious, very personal and sensitive topic. Particularly for those, who have just lost their loved ones. And that’s the reason why there is so little knowledge about the behavior and expectations of the user. That means, there are no established guidelines yet on how to develop an appropriate online product related to this issue. And that’s not so great for those, who are going to use these products.

But yes, it’s quite easy to say, “this one sucks and the other one is stupid too”, but it is not at that easy to define how it should be done correctly. How do you proceed with a project, which has to handle such an unpleasant and difficult issue? Do the known heuristics, best practices and web design standards even apply on such a topic? Can we make use of the established approaches when designing with death in mind?

Lets just take user test as an example. Those are normally performed under lab-conditions or ideally within in the context of a real use-case. But how the hell would I even simulate a real use case, when I want to know how a grieving person acts after the passing of a relative or a friend? It’s not like I’d be able to perform a user-test here. It rather wouldn’t be very sensitive to look up funeral dates, then to wait outside the graveyard with a prototype in hands and to ask the attendees for a moment of their time to test this product, which is dealing with the issue of “losing a relative”…

User Test Graveyard

This is why, as you can imagine, we decided against the classical user testing in our project. We were able to convince our client, that the waterfall approach, which I generally don’t see as a good idea, would be a terrible one for the development of such a product. To get the users’ validation without having the possibility of doing user tests, we had to develop something quickly and agile and to get some real users to use the product.

So we decided to build a Minimum Viable Product, where we can quickly gather user feedback, which enables us to immediately identify mistakes and opportunities and to develop the product iteratively based on real user data.

But we were not really sure about different design and copy aspects of the product — for example the imagery or tone of voice, as the preceding research didn’t give us clear indicators for one or another direction. So we decided to do A/B testing or rather multi-variant testing on the live site. Based on the results of the web analytics and the multi-variant test we are permanently developing the product in small steps to guarantee ideal user experience.

But that’s just one of the questions you have to ask yourself when you design the afterlife. At least just as important as what the user actually sees, is what she shouldn’t be able to see.

The digital death is all about data. Digital death is about very sensitive data: passwords, contacts, possibly also payment data. It’s also about private messages and information, which are meant for my friends and relatives — but only after I’m not here anymore. Let’s say I would write a “final message”, which shall be released on all my social networks after my death. It would not be very cool, if that message were released while I am still alive and well. Or if my posthumous message to my lover would somehow get into the hands of my husband… The user has to be sure that none of the information he enters before he dies is sent to the wrong person or is released at the wrong time.

This immediately spawns lot of questions:

  • How can the probability of such incidents be minimalized?
  • Which security measures are necessary?
  • How to proof, whether the person in question really did die and whether the relative is indeed entitled to receive access to this data?

And, think also about this aspect: when a user buys a life insurance, she usually does it with a provider, has been in business for years. All the providers for digital legacy management exist just for months, and we all know how the life cycle of a lot of start-ups looks like. So they are all offering the lifetime price of few 100 dollars or euros for the management of your legacy. But, as I actually don’t plan to die in the next few months or years — it might be rather their lifetime and not mine… And then I have to start all over again.

Unfortunately there are no ultimate answers to these and many other questions yet. Mainly because universal standards are still to be developed. At the moment every provider of those services handles all the different questions of digital legacy, from design to privacy, differently. Standardizing of processes, like death verification, would help the user to deal with this topic and simplify the administration. Besides that, development of appropriate interfaces by companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter will also allow external providers of legacy services, to bundle the different processes and therefore to simplify these unpleasant procedures for the user. As the relevance of this matter increases, I expect to see a lot of change happening in the following months regarding the digital death. As we can see in the policy of Facebook — the changes are already taking place.

Here is my presentation from the re:publica 2015:


Related posts