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The ghost in your machine: death in the social media age

WHO wants to live forever? Well, one third of us are planning to do so via social media, according to research by law firm Blacks Solicitors. That’s millions of Brits who want to leave messages, photos and videos for their friends in memoriam — but is this something our internet services are on board with?

With stories of Facebook blocking parents from accessing their dead child’s account to password services like Keeper Security launching features for users’ next of kins, it’s clear we all need a bit of a nudge to get our virtual affairs in order.

Just 14 per cent of us have shared the credentials to our social media profiles with loved ones, says funeral directors CPJ Field. Only six per cent have left instructions on how to access their online storage vaults and a whopping 90 per cent have no idea what a ‘legacy contact’ is. You didn’t know either? You’d better read on…

Social deathwork

Facebook and Google lead the way in providing for the moment when the Grim Reaper makes a friendship request. It’s the former that has dreamed up the legacy contact. Head to your settings and you can choose whether to deactivate your profile or nominate a friend to whom you can hand the keys to your memorialised account when your number’s up.

Your legacy contact can then change your cover photo and profile pic, manage friend requests, download a copy of everything you ever shared short of your messages and share a final update, with details on your memorial service and any kind of tribute people can make.

What’s left is a place where friends can post photos, write comments and generally come together to remember how ace you were.

Resurrection: The TV show Black Mirror explored digital life after death

Facebook celebrates every other moment in our lives, so ‘memorialisation’ is a natural feature to add. It’s also a rather handy way of ensuring its two-billion-and-rising user base continues to grow. With estimates of 8,000 Facebookers dying each day, just when will the profiles of the living be outnumbered by those of the dead?

Interestingly, Instagram, also owned by Facebook, is far less evolved when it comes to your afterlife. Memorialisation occurs on production of a death certificate by an immediate family member but nothing can be changed on such pages and no updates made. Your loved ones can’t download your finely filtered photos, either. What it means is that people won’t be able to repost, tag or interact in any way with your images and nor will they show up in public feeds or searches. It all just sits there as a pretty memorial until the end of time, unless you’d prefer to have it posthumously wiped.

Eternal life: From Facebook to Aftervault to Eternime (see below), big tech is working on ways to manage your onlife affairs after death

Things are bleaker still with Twitter and LinkedIn. Neither offer anything other than deletion although, to be fair, these are different kinds of services. Doubtless it took effort to compile your CV but do you really care if people know about your much-mourned team-building skills?

Six tweets under

Of course, you don’t have to inform any of these social networks that you’re no longer with us. In fact, you can continue to use them from beyond the grave with DeadSocial, which allows you to create posts to automatically trigger on given dates — your daughter’s birthday, say, or your wedding anniversary. It sounds a little ghoulish but is probably very touching on delivery and, indeed, why stop there?

There is a growing wake of so-called death apps promising to become your digital executor. You can pre-record video messages for delivery to your loved ones over the next 20 years with services like SafeBeyond from $3.99 (£3) per month and Vivala.me for $10.99 (£7.75), and they’ll double as an online safe for all your passwords and crucial documents.

Aftervault ups the stakes on the storage front with a 100GB digital lockbox anyone in your family can access for a one-off payment of $299 (£230). It comes with an award-winning filing system for funeral plans, life insurance, investments, real estate, photos and a host of other categories. Of course, the downside of many of these services is that they’re all rather new. A one-off payment sounds good now but will these start-ups still be here when you are not?

LastPass is one service you can rely on. The gold standard in cloud-based password management systems, it’s a safe bet to stand the test of time. Leave the details of all your online accounts in there and then a single set of credentials is all your beneficiaries will need.

In terms of Google services, you can bequeath the lot — photos, Gmail, Google Drive documents, YouTube videos, calendars, bookmarks and all — thanks to the Inactive Account Manager. Once you’ve not logged in for a predetermined number of months, you can set your Google account to automail a few key contacts with access rights to your data and even a personal message. Just don’t forget to set it up. It feels a bit like filling in your Google last will and testament but it’s definitely worth doing.

Virtual immortality

Of course, the most important thing you might consider leaving behind is you — or at least a copy of your consciousness. Advancements in whole-brain uploading is a subject for another day but, suffice to say, it ain’t here yet. Instead, Eternime is as close as you can get right now. In development since 2014, its aim is to soak up your digital footprint and create an avatar that looks and behaves just like you — your face will be on a screen and there’ll be the opportunity for the living to have what is effectively a Skype conversation with the dead.

It’s an idea familiar to fans of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror TV shows but is approaching reality nonetheless. Inventor Marius Ursache’s idea is to create a legacy of online ancestors who can hand their stories down through history rather than designing a surrogate of the deceased, which could interfere with the grieving process. Where one eventuality begins and the other ends, though, sounds like a very grey area indeed.

Where there’s a will…

Writing a will is the last thing any of us wants to do. It’s depressing, it’s lengthy and it’s complicated, and it’s no surprise that research from Will Aid says that more than half of all UK adults don’t have one. Enter Farewill, the UK’s No.1 online will writer, to disrupt the bejesus out of the industry and get it all done for you on mobile or desktop in an average time of 14 minutes and for just £50. And online wills are nicer too. As many as seven in ten of Farewill’s testaments contain a personal message for loved ones compared to one per cent of all UK wills industry-wide. God bless the internet.