Monday 6 January 2020 4:32 am

The social media giants are becoming digital graveyards

Elaine Kasket is a psychologist, speaker, and the author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Afterlife of Your Personal Data (2019).

In the final weeks of 2019, Twitter announced an imminent cull of inactive accounts.

Desultory users risked losing their Twitter handles and having to start building their social media presence all over again.

But there was another implication: inactivity might also mean that the person behind the profile is no longer alive.

Bereaved people reacted badly. Those who had log-in details or device access rushed to post tweets that would preserve the profiles, their messages materialising on deceased people’s feeds like voices from beyond the grave. 

Not everyone could do this, though. “I don’t have my dad’s log-in,” Drew Olanoff lamented in an article on TechCrunch. “I can’t ‘wake up’ his account to keep it safe.”

Twitter back-pedalled just a day later, saying that it hadn’t anticipated the impact on the bereaved. But the emotional significance of such digital remains shouldn’t be news to anyone in Silicon Valley. 

Back in 2013 Google instituted an Inactive Account Manager, and Facebook followed suit with Legacy Contact the next year, allowing users to appoint a kind of digital executor. Facebook used to delete profiles upon death but changed its policy based on user feedback following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Instagram memorialises accounts now too, and Twitter appears set to do the same.

Social media companies didn’t mean to become digital cemeteries — they exist to connect living users, sell them things, and profit from their data. But 100 per cent of social media users will eventually die, and there are no virtual worms to nibble away all trace of our online lives: the email accounts, search histories, comments, posts, message threads, GPS tracking, and health data. 

According to scholars at the Oxford Internet Institute, digitally stored information grows four times faster than the world economy, and the fact that this data glut includes millions of online ghosts is an increasing issue for the companies that house them.

Facebook may be an empire of social media now but it will eventually become the empire of death: the digital remains of 4.9bn people may be “buried” there by the end of the century, far outnumbering living users. 

The big dog of social media companies isn’t the only one with problems. Innumerable businesses hoover up data without considering the end from the beginning, and most lack fit-for-purpose systems governing how to handle the data of the deceased. 

They aren’t helped by lack of guidance. Unhelpfully, GDPR kicked the can down the road. In this regulatory void, companies can do whatever they want, often developing policy reactively and hastily, usually in the wake of PR problems like Twitter’s gaffe last year.

The existence of these persistent digital legacies means that we carry our lost loved ones with us, in the palms of our hands. Our smartphones serve as both amusement parks and cemeteries. 

Contrary to popular misconceptions about grief, maintaining a connection with those gone before is generally neither abnormal nor unhealthy, and continuing bonds with people’s digital legacies is common. Now that we write few letters and print few photos, our memorabilia tend to be stored as binary code and mediated by service providers. 

People may be outraged when digital remains disappear from online platforms, but of course they surrendered control over this eventuality long ago, when they agreed to the T&Cs which they probably didn’t read.

Blanket preservation, however, may not be the answer. Our digital legacies are often fully-fledged identities rather than mere footprints, and their contribution to the overheating of the world’s servers is not the only issue — they are also brimming with personally identifiable and often sensitive information. 

Companies can currently monetise or otherwise exploit the data of the dead, analysing it for market insights, using it to train artificial intelligence models, or holding onto it to retain living users who are loath to desert the lost loved ones that still reside on the platform in digital form.

In its October report, the Data Ethics Commission in Germany  recommended that service providers be obliged to handle the data of the deceased appropriately, that quality assurance standards be set for digital estate planning services, and that post-mortem data protections be instituted by the state. What this will look like in practice, in Germany and elsewhere, is all to play for.

If the concept of “digital estate planning services” sounds unfamiliar, you’re not alone, but it’s time we get acquainted with the idea. Until recently, we had no more need of it than the dead had need of privacy, but the worm has turned. 

It should be our testamentary right to dispose of a lifetime’s corpus of highly personal digital information as we see fit, but seizing back control may be harder than we think, and it may not happen without first breaking up the big tech companies that have succeeded the medical establishment and funeral industry as the new masters of death.

Main image credit: Getty

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