Dawn of the Virtual Legacy

  • April 01, 2015

Chances are, if you are an active Facebook user you have at least one deceased person on your friend list. According to a 2012 Huffington Post report, Facebook was host to more than 30 million deceased user accounts. The world’s largest social media platform has inadvertently become the world’s largest virtual cemetery.

Says a recent Facebook blog post, “Facebook is a place to share and connect with friends and family. For many of us, it’s also a place to remember and honor those we’ve lost. When a person passes away, their account can become a memorial of their life, friendships and experiences.”
Until now, families and friends had the option to either have their loved one’s account deleted or allow it to carry on as an unmoderated memorial page.

Facebook has now taken this a step forward; a new feature, launched February 2015 in the US, allows users to designate a "legacy contact", who will have the ability to log in and moderate the account after Facebook has received notification of death.

The legacy contact would report the death by visiting Facebook’s Memorialization Request Page and providing the name, date of death and a supporting link (such as an online obituary or news report).

Once an account has been memorialized:

  • The word ‘Remembering’ is shown next to the person's name on their profile;
  • Depending on the privacy settings of the account, friends can share memories on the timeline;
  • Content the person shared remains and is visible to the audience it was shared with;
  • Memorialized profiles don't appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for ‘People You May Know’ prompts, ads or birthday reminders;
  • Memorialized accounts that don't have a legacy contact can't be changed (and legacy contacts cannot change pre-existing content).

Dealing with a loss is a very personal, subjective experience that can be fraught with social tensions: even moreso when you add the complex etiquette of social media to the mix. And as we evolve and continually establish new societal norms, we are outpaced by technology.

Facebook is all too familiar with these societal growing pains, having sent automated prompts to users encouraging them to reconnect with a deceased loved one and reminders of the loved one’s approaching birthday.  In late 2014 Facebook launched their “Year in Review” feature, a photo montage auto-generated from users’ albums. After logging in, users were presented with an upbeat slideshow of their own photos, a jaunty trip down memory lane. The problem, of course, was that memory lane can be painful for some, and one father, who had lost his young daughter to cancer just months earlier, publicly complained. These were unfortunate consequences of an automated system.

Facebook apologized and through their new memorialization and legacy features, are doing their part to ensure deceased users are represented with dignity and their loved ones communicated with sensitively.

As social media continues to bloom and thrive in this age of information, so does the darker side of the equation. The digital remnants of those departed - a trail of photos, status updates, comments and videos – live on in cyberspace, immortally vulnerable to exploitation.

Lawyers must keep up, charged with the task of protecting and preserving their clients’ virtual legacies. Whether it’s through estate planning, privacy injunctions or drafting legislation, lawyers must protect them - virtual contrails that will outlast us all.

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