In the Information Age, what is the first instinct you have when you hear that someone has gone missing—and even further, has passed away? You look them up online, either through breaking news or finding their Instagram handle. But the results aren’t always what you expect they will be.
This experience typically results in two outcomes: the individual’s account has either become a “digital headstone,” filled with sincere thoughts and wishes that both strangers and loved ones have left on a public page or comment thread. Or, it can become a messy affair, filled with circles of negative comments and unwarranted hacking attempts by spam bots.
We don’t always have control of how we will be remembered when we die, especially when it comes to our online presence. Most of us tech-savvy Millennials even consider this as a final thought, even though it is the primary way we choose to represent ourselves in this era.
However, when we don’t take the time to decide how we will be remembered, someone else may be left with the responsibility of doing it for you. If you had the opportunity, would you want to be remembered by keeping your online presence alive past your physical departure?
It can get tricky: How social media has evolved death
Although some may argue that social media should simply be deleted when someone dies, there is a lot more to handling someone’s profile these days. You’re not only determining the fate of an online profile, but an extension of that person. Several cases over the years have proven that social media was not only necessary to grieve, it was a way to solve the complications of death.
Social media has helped people grieve and remember loved ones. Foster Bettman was only 19-years-old when he committed suicide in 2014. Although Foster was not active on social media himself, the profiles of Foster and other deceased individuals have been an opportunity for family and friends to mourn, as well as gather funds to handle funeral expenses, livestream funerals during COVID lockdowns, and host Facebook events for in-person memorials.
Social media has also helped understand someone better than who they were in person. Elaine Park was 20-years-old when she first went missing in Malibu, California in 2017. Although the case has not confirmed her death, Elaine’s complicated disappearance has resulted in a years-long search, and turned into the subject of a podcast. To Live and Die in LA was able to use most of her digital remnants to better understand the young woman she was, since she kept most of her personal life private. They also problem-solved the case in ways that police were unable to do so.
Social media can also solve mysterious deaths. Gabby Petito was on a cross-country road trip through the Southwest United States before she died in 2021. As a social media influencer, her case attracted thousands of users who would have been otherwise unaware of her. Gabby left dozens of videos, photographs, and content that helped her family, the police, and the world discover her remnants in Wyoming.
Every death is unique—and complicated. Social media has shown that an account is much more than an online profile, but a physical extension of someone, who requires much more nuanced care and consideration.
You’re given limited options on social media when you die
There are an estimated 4.9 billion accounts to be in existence by the end of this century; the thought of deceased account management has certainly crossed the minds of this generation’s pioneering social tycoons. However, much of what exists today passes on the responsibilities of these accounts to another individual, requires prior planning, or offers straightforward account deletion.
Facebook currently offers the most extensive planning for death on its platform, leaving an option for users to determine what they want to do to their profiles before they die. Given its ownership by Facebook, Instagram also follows a similar structure to memorializing an account by remaining online, but they’re incapable of choosing what they can do beforehand. Twitter and Tik Tok offer the least coverage for accounts in the event of death. Both involve the requirement of a trusted individual in a will to handle your profile, and on top of that, require your password credentials in order to access it, along with an officially approved death certificate.
The most limiting of these social media accounts is the way you interact when you die. Although several offer you the opportunity to remain an active user, you essentially become frozen in time. Your comments, photos, and previous posts remain unchanged, but your interactions do—in that your account no longer generates any interactions. It can only receive such.
You can’t pre-set any replies or posts for thoughtful wishes on that digital headstone, or message friends and family on their birthdays. You have no chance to decide what photos should be removed and which ones should stay up. In other words, your ability to add or change any additional content is revoked.
It’s important to choose the fate of your virtual presence
As mentioned earlier, for many, the thought of your online presence is often second to last, compared to other matters in life (and death). However, the need can become more urgent if you knew that it might end up in the wrong hands—and suddenly, the person who you thought you were may be second guessed by everyone.
Keep your content private
You should care about what happens to your social media after you die because you may have posted content you never want revealed. Whether it’s a handful of embarrassing albums from high school, or information sensitive to your job, some things you posted online should simply stay hidden. Knowing where those assets will go when you pass away ensures that the right person will take care of them. Or, that your deactivated accounts will allow people to focus on other aspects of your remembrance.
Be in control
Yes, we live in a time in which our information is constantly being shared with other outlets without our consent. However, choosing what happens to digital personas gives us some sense of control in our lives.
It’s the responsible thing to do. Maybe you don’t personally care about what happens around you after you die, let alone your social media accounts. However, you may be leaving loved ones to handle the task of portraying you accurately when you pass - something that may end up being more complicated than you think.
So you’ve decided to completely erase your online existence—Was that a good move?
The simplest solution for many is to just delete it. Delete it all.
However, where does that give others a chance to grieve? Could they make it to the funeral? Were they able to get their favorite photos of you together before you deactivated your Facebook? Or leave a message to the public about a special memory you had of them?
While deactivation may initially seem like the quickest, pain-free way for others to carry the weight of your passing, it may also be the least sensitive.
Of course it depends on the kind of person you are, but for many it may be a missed opportunity for you to be remembered. And if there’s one common fear that we witness others experience upon death, it is the fear of being forgotten.
Be remembered how you want to be remembered: the benefits of memorialization.
In today’s age, technology is making it possible for others to continue remembering you after you die, and even further—interact with you beyond that.
Make a positive impact
Resurrecting your social media may seem like a personal benefit, but it is a selfless one too, a way for others to be with you beyond your physical departure. The way you leave Earth has an impact on others whether you choose to believe this or not. Memorializing offers you the chance to continue impacting others, and helps the grieving process in doing so.
Help others get used to life without you
Memorializing also provides a smoother transition into life without your physical presence. Whether it’s your kids who you spoke with on the phone regularly, or the friends you met every week for dinner, being able to be with you virtually after you pass can be the first step to transitioning into life without you completely.
Showcase the real you
Lastly, it is simply the chance to be remembered how you want to be remembered. The way you interacted online is a strong reflection of that. Today’s technology and your activity can serve as a stronger representation of who you are; often time, more so than what another individual can portray, who may see you in a different light. And whether that is positive or negative, it may not be accurate to who you truly were.
Whether you decide to delete your online existence, or continue your legacy virtually, it should be up to you to decide. Today’s social media platforms may only provide some black and white options on how to continue your presence or to remove it - but it’s getting easier and easier to find other ways to do this so that your loved ones can grieve and remember you - in the way that you would prefer.