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How to Deal with Death Online

Death on the internet

Although most social network sites and online games today enforce extensive regulations on their members, one issue is continuously overlooked or ignored: what happens to a profile or an avatar when its user dies?

A lot of social networking websites do not have a clear policy on this subject. Some websites remove users who don't sign in to their account for a certain amount of time. But frequently they don't get the chance, because profiles are turned into veritable memorial sites for the deceased. Many personal MySpace and Facebook profiles thus become a place of collective mourning for the bereaved where they may leave messages and prayers. Or, when passwords can be retrieved, friends or family may change a profile into an online shrine with pictures and information about the lost loved one.

Facebook is one of the social networking sites that has included a statement on death in their Terms of Use: 'When we are notified that a user has died, we will generally, but are not obligated to, keep the user's account active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by us to allow other users to post and view comments.' The Dutch dance-community Partyflock allows members to post condolences to the profile of deceased friends. Their profiles remain on a special section of the site, with a notification of their death. Livejournal has a similar group for deceased members, but it is created by a member, not by Livejournal itself.

For most social networking sites, it can be difficult to know whether a user has died. Even if they are contacted by family or friends, they may feel it is necessary to officially verify the report with a death certificate. At the same time, for family members it is often impossible to know about all the accounts and communities a person was a member of. If the deceased was not in touch with any of his or her online friends in the real world, this means these friends often have no way of finding out what happened to this person. An Online Death Notification Service offers one solution. Such a Notification Service involves the storage of a list of online contacts that are notified when family informs the Service that the user has died. It could also be helpful to sign up to OpenID, a website that provides their users with one single login for various sites. In case of death, OpenID is then able to inform all the sites at once, although it is still up to every individual site what they will do with the news.

In online games, players sometimes organize an online funeral when a member has died in real life, for example in Batteground Europe/WWII online. The death of a fellow player raises the awareness of users to the fact that online friends exist not only virtually, but also physically. When it is not possible to attend a funeral service in real life, holding an online ceremony may be an appropriate way to grieve.

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Further recommended reading:

'Ghosts in the Machines, What Happens to Your Online Self When You Die?' article by Ryan Boddy

'Who Profits from Your Content When You're Dead?' by Ed Kohler

'There's life after death if you're online - Social networking sites are having to devise policies to deal with the death of a user - and some are getting it more right than others' article in the Guardian

'Online Social Networks as Vehicles of Individual and Collective Remembrance', article by Jenny Ryan. Compares how members on three social network sites deal with other members who are deceased. MySpace (and Mydeathspace), Tribe.net and Facebook are discussed.

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