Not to start the blog post off on a low note or anything...
Facebook wouldn't know that he died right away, though. My family isn't particularly tech-savvy, so it's possible that his Facebook page would persist in its current form for a while. Around the same time next year, Facebook might tell me that my cousin, though possibly passed on, is celebrating his 51st birthday.
My cousin's situation is not the first of its kind. There is a diverse range of traditions around the world for dealing with mortality, and the Internet has begun developing traditions of its own. With so many of our life experiences cataloged online in various ways, it seems almost expected that these windows to our lives would also provide constructs for our deaths.
Historically, websites and online hubs have not been designed with mortality in mind, and didn't used to offer any real procedure for what happens to user information after those users die. In 2004, Yahoo! denied e-mail access to the family of a marine killed in Iraq, as it was not within the bounds of the website's terms of service to share that access with anybody.
This issue has since begun getting attention from larger websites, as well as academic attention. The term "thanatosensitivity" was coined to describe the specific issue of mortality and technology. Outside of this, websites' terms of service have been evolving to include policies about death and information ownership.
Social networks have had the most visible policies, given how pervasive they are in our lives. Facebook pages in particular can be converted to memorial pages. The profile becomes private to everyone but confirmed friends, and disables further notifications about things like birthdays. It also preserves a person's online Facebook information, for the sake of remembrance. Proof of death usually has to be submitted to the website team, usually in the form of a newspaper obituary. Supposedly, this policy was devised in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Prior to this, dead profiles were simply deleted.
Memorials that don't deprive the soil of nutrients? The Internet is just so green!
Google has a lengthy legal procedure where they'll alter or take down information of a deceased user's Gmail, Google+, Blogger (don't do this, family!), and other Google-linked content, so long as you can verify that you are a lawful representative of the deceased. Twitter offers a similar legal procedure for deactivating Twitter accounts. MySpace profiles of the deceased cannot be accessed by loved ones, but representatives can contact MySpace to have them review and remove any content that the family wants gone.
Beyond these larger websites, policies on death become less visible. SomethingAwful, for example, will perma-ban accounts whose owners have been confirmed dead, eliminating the possibility of anyone trying to impersonate the user, but is usually done out of courtesy to the family's request and not outlined in any official terms of service. It may be safe to assume that "smaller" websites handle these things on a case by case basis, whenever family members actually show concern over how their loved ones used to waste their time on random internet websites (they probably don't, usually).
Some websites exist for the sole purpose of remembrance. The Interactive Vietnam Veterans Memorial represents a digital leap from the famous Wall in Washington D.C., dedicated to posting tributes, stories, and other humanizing memories of dead or missing soldiers who fought in Vietnam. FindAGrave is dedicated to recording final deposition information from around the world, creating a sort of virtual cemetery. The website MyDeathSpace, not actually affiliated with MySpace, catalogs the deaths of people with MySpace profiles, putting in significant research in how the person died and even occasionally exposing convicted murderers with MySpace profiles.
The biggest of such websites is Legacy.com, a general online memorial website. The website gets considerable traffic, and hosts obituaries for hundreds of newspapers. Each obituary also gets a guestbook for people to pay tribute to the deceased. Sometimes the guestbooks posts get ugly, leading to people revealing past scams, grievances, infidelities, and molestations.
I'm sure 'Ninfa' and 'Peter' had some fun comments for her guest book.
This leads us to the other dimension of death on the Internet: how death affects the network of people online.
The point of most of these website policies is to decide who gets to manage information on their website once the person originally generating (and managing) the information on their website is dead. But in the case of an online obituary guestbook or MyDeathSpace, it's other people generating information on someone else. There is no control over who talks about the dead, or how they talk about the dead. Granted, this isn't a situation new to the Internet, but the connectivity of the online network enables this to happen far more broadly.
Most of the time, other people online don't even notice if a fellow user has passed. Death and website inactivity are nearly indistinguishable things from the perspective of the average online user. Plus, with how easy it is to deceive people on the Internet and how often online death hoaxes pop up, lots of people have grown cynical over such sensational news. People will go out of their way to speculate about dead users in only very rare instances. Such is the case of "9/11 guy", a former forums user on GameFAQs who last logged into his account on the evening of September 10th, 2001.
But sometimes, news of death really blows up online.
In a previous blog post, I mentioned Shana Christine Strode, who committed suicide in 2003, and whose LiveJournal page was converted to a memorial by her family. Members of the forum LUE, a popular board on GameFAQs, discovered her LiveJournal page and flooded it with nasty comments and shocking imagery. Mocking the dead isn't a new practice, but these mocking comments are all organized in one place, forever associated with Shana's online memorial.
A similar defacement could be seen with Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader whose 2006 suicide prompted his classmates to create a virtual memorial for him. Word of this page spread around online, and some people noticed that one of his last posts on Facebook was about a lost iPod. For the sake of personal amusement, these online strangers - who had likely never known Mitchell Henderson - decided that Mitch had killed himself over losing an iPod. They also noticed that one of Mitchell's classmates had posted a message on his wall with a funny grammatical error - "an hero". Not only did these people proceed to vandalize Mitchell Henderson's MySpace account, "an hero" became a meme and synonym for suicide.
Sometimes you see the opposite situation happen. Amanda Todd, a fifteen year old Canadian, committed suicide in 2012 after ongoing experiences with bullying, harassment, and self-harm. Prior to her suicide, she had posted a video on YouTube that effectively operated as her suicide note. The video quickly went viral, and the name 'Amanda Todd' quickly became synonymous with cyber-bullying. Nation-wide vigils were held, people rushed to track down her tormentors, and lawmakers even talked of new legislature. The late fifteen year old has become a tragic - almost martyr-like - figure, and an icon that has driven efforts against cyber-bullying.
Famous last video.
Why did people react to Amanda Todd so differently than they did to Mitchell Henderson? Maybe more of the right people were Internet-literate in 2013 than they were in 2006. Maybe Anonymous simply wasn't as much of an online force by the time Amanda Todd became relevant. Maybe we really have been progressing towards better attitudes on online bullying.
What the two deceased teenagers do have in common is being remembered in ways that were beyond the control of any family member or website. Their legacies took on a form that went beyond any online information that they personally authored - it was by the interactions and information generation of the online population that made these individuals far bigger in death than they ever were alive.
With the Internet, our information succeeds us in ways that we've never previously seen in history. The idea of having a 'legacy', of having a life worth writing about, used to be reserved to famous artists, authors, war heroes, innovators, and privileged classes. Today, anyone who uses the Internet has a legacy, in the form of their digital footprint.
Your online identity is more fleshed out as more of your information is put online. For some people, their online identity can get very extensive. If you were to die tomorrow, your online identity would persist, though frozen in time. You probably never joined Facebook with the intention of leaving behind a trail of information that would come to form your online identity, but now, without asking for it at all - you will persist beyond death for as long as the Internet can hold you.
So, what if you didn't want this to happen to you?
Step 1: Find the Internet's "off" button.
There are an increasing number of ways to manage your own online information after death. Earlier in 2013, Google rolled out its Inactive Account Manager, functioning as a sort of digital will for Google users. You can specify what you want to happen to your information if your Google-linked accounts are inactive for a certain amount of time. Facebook has introduced a "death app", where you can plan out posts and messages to be sent on Facebook after you've died. A similar platform, DeadSocial, offers this same service across multiple social networking sites.
If you wanted to completely wipe away your online identity, it'll take a little more effort on your part. There are plenty of step-by-step guides and gimmicky apps in order to eliminate online information on yourself. After you've accomplished this, you could browse the Internet using some very careful measures to make sure that you don't leak any new information about yourself. I guess you could also tell everyone you know not to post information or pictures of you on Facebook either, because you're fooling yourself if you don't think reverse image searching exists.
Chances are, if you're not an overly paranoid libertarian, you probably find it unnecessary to go through all that effort to erase your online identity. Most sane people are probably fine with how they currently use the Internet, and probably aren't too troubled by the information that they've consented to put about themselves online. It also seems like a generally bad idea to be so aligned against your online presence. One reporter for The Verge went from April 2012 to April 2013 without using the Internet, and the lesson he learned from the experience was that, in this day and age, a life without the Internet was not real life at all.
But having the option to mediate some post-mortem information is certainly useful. It is essentially an act of adding more information on top of the information about you. This empowers you to qualify the context of how you'll be remembered. Persisting on the network after you die isn't that big of a deal. You probably won't care - you'll be dead.
But talking about online longevity in the present day is short-sighted. Content on the Internet has only been aggregating for a few decades. What happens fifty years from now, when your information is still around, and on equal footing with the information of your grandchildren?
Grandpa's left me a message! What does "I can has cheezburger" mean?
XKCD's Randall Munroe recently wrote an amazing blog post attempting to answer the question, "When will Facebook contain more profiles of dead people than of living ones?" His answer was sometime in the late 21st or early 22nd century, assuming Facebook is even still culturally relevant by then. One can certainly imagine a future person traversing the archives of early 21st century Internet and finding marvelously vivid accounts of their deceased great-grandparents. Perhaps they could even find a message left for them.
Humans seem to be just as fascinated by their origin stories as they are by their eventual demise. 23andMe offers its genetic expertise in outlining your ancestral genetic traits along with what traits you may offer to your children. Ancestry.com positions itself as a gatekeeper to the past, holding archives of records from census data, legal forms, and other materials that can help someone piece together their lineage. Imagine a future where ancestry data actually is the Internet that you use right now, where your Facebook statuses, my blog posts, and everything in between are records that our descendants will one day read in order to understand who they are.
When you think about online identity in that light, few things could really be so distressing that you'd want to rip down all of your online information and deprive that information from your great grandchildren. And, with the ability to set up information to be set up post-mortem, you can even send messages to the descendants that you'll never even meet.
That, of course, assumes that your information won't get deleted for other reasons. Perhaps there will come a day where information needs to be destroyed in order to make room for new information - a sort of "online identity overpopulation", if you will. With hundreds of exabytes stored already and the rate of information generation showing no signs of slowing down, it seems difficult to foresee when such a situation would even happen.
With the Internet, perhaps death really has become only the beginning. Let us freely paint our legacies, so that future generations may be enriched by what we do.