Naureen Aqueel

Archive for March 2011

Published in The Express Tribune – Techeye, March 6, 2011.

Many of us cannot imagine our lives without the digital identities that we have built around ourselves. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs, Gmail, Flickr, YouTube — all have come to play an essential role in the person we define ourselves to be. But how many of us can imagine our digital identities living on after we have left this world?

Thanks to the World Wide Web and social media, it is now easier to live on in more than just people’s memories. Social forums like Facebook and Twitter serve as a much more tangible and accessible legacy than anything out there in the real world.

Hundreds of photos, thousands of tweets and status updates, hundreds of blogs and YouTube videos — these are just some of the things we leave off in the digital trail, like public virtual scrapbooks. They may provide solace to family and friends of the deceased who like living over memories of their loved ones. For others, they may just be painful reminders that keep popping up as they make their way around cyberspace.

And it is these divergent reactions that have helped social networking websites and service providers develop policies to deal with their dead. Let’s take a look at how different websites deal with a person’s digital assets after they die:


After complaints of deceased people showing up on Facebook’s automatically generated suggestions section of people to “reconnect” with, the social-networking giant set out its policy of dealing with dead users. Heirs of a user can request that an account be deleted or “memorialised”. Memorialising a profile entails that the wall of the user will be open for family and friends to pay their respects, while future attempts to log-in will be sealed. Heirs can contact Facebook to delete or memorialise an account by notifying the company and showing a death certificate or news article indicating the user’s death.


Twitter followed the footsteps of Facebook by adopting a policy for the dead whereby relatives and friends of a user can request the deletion of the profile or the back-up of the user’s public tweets. Twitter too asks heirs of the deceased user to submit a link to an obituary, along with information about their relationship, before the account is deleted or backed up. Twitter, however, does not allow relatives access to an account nor does it disclose other non-public information regarding it.


Yahoo, which owns Flickr, does not allow any right of survivorship in its terms and conditions and is non-transferable. Upon receipt of a death certificate, the company terminates a user’s account and all contents therein are deleted.


Gmail allows heirs to access deceased users e-mail accounts in some cases. It provides a list of instructions in its help documents outlining the procedure that allows a heir to gain access to a deceased user’s account which includes proof of death and proof that the person in question is a lawful representative of the deceased’s estate, among other documentation.


YouTube also allows for transfer of account after a person’s death upon the provision of documentation which includes a copy of the death certificate of the user and of a document that gives one Power of Attorney over the YouTube account.

Dealing with digital legacy

Realising the need to have a proper method of dealing with a person’s digital legacies after death, a number of companies and advisors have cropped up that help users plan what happens to their online content after they die. Considering that a lot of our most important communication happens online and many a times, our financial and property information is also stored online, advisors like those who manage the website emphasise on having a digital executioner or a proper plan to handle one’s digital belongings after death.


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March 2011