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Virtually still here

TO people who spend lots of time on Facebook, Friendster, Twitter or other social networking websites, their accounts have become important repositories of part of their lives and memories.

To them, Facebook or Friendster accounts are like online scrapbooks. They contain records of conversations with friends, and all the “LOLROTF”s and “T_T”s along the way. They contain photo albums and records of the groups or causes they support, the pals they willingly sacrificed for a mere Whopper, and various other antics they indulge in.

What happens on and to these accounts when these people die? The question crops up whenever someone we know or a public personality passes on. And we have had a few recently.

Online memorial

For some people who have passed on, their social media accounts have become a memorial space. It’s where their friends mourn their loss, by visiting the website, leaving messages on it or posting stories and photos to share with others.

Toni Kasim (Courtesy of WCI2)
The first example that comes to mind is the Facebook account of my friend Toni Kasim. Toni, a human rights activist, passed away from cancer on 4 June 2008. Today, more than a year after, her friends are still leaving messages on her still-active Facebook wall on various occasions. They remember her on her birthday and on her death anniversary. They think of her and her role in women’s rights advocacy, especially on International Women’s Day, or when something triggers a longing for her to be here today to share that moment with them.

Yasmin Ahmad (Source:
Since filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad passed away from a stroke on 25 July 2009, her Facebook wall has been inundated with messages, from friends as well as people she didn’t know. They left messages to say they missed her, that they appreciated how her films try to dismantle racial barriers in Malaysian society. They recited the verses of the Al-Fatihah prayer for her.

For Teoh Beng Hock, who was found dead on 16 July 2009 near the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s Selangor headquarters in Plaza Masalam, Shah Alam, a Facebook group, Justice for Comrade Beng Hock, has been set up to call for proper investigations and answers on his death.

Teoh, the political secretary of Seri Kembangan state assemblyperson Ean Yong Hian Wah, was last seen at the MACC office, where he was questioned as a witness in relation to investigations on graft allegations involving state representatives.

Meanwhile, Michael Jackson‘s popularity surged after the pop star died suddenly on 25 June 2009. The number of fans on his Facebook page jumped from about 800,000 before his death to more than 10 million today, says the blog Inside Facebook. The blog’s PageData, which tracks Facebook page metrics and trends, shows that since his death, Jackson’s page has overtaken US President Barack Obama’s page to have the highest number of fans on Facebook.

Michael Jackson (Public domain /
Wiki commons)
Jackson’s Facebook page administrator has been putting up announcements to inform his fans that previously unavailable videos are now up on the Official Michael Jackson YouTube Channel and to ask them to share their memories of him on Fans have also thronged the Facebook page to leave personal comments.

Policies on the deceased

While such memorial space can provide catharsis to those in mourning, one wonders how long the social media accounts of the deceased would remain active. Most operators would not know that the account holder has died. And, unlike Jackson’s Facebook page administrator, the next of kin usually does not have the login information to terminate the account.

A check on some social network operators, such as Facebook, Friendster, MySpace and Twitter, reveals that not all publish a clear or easy-to-find policy on what to do with the account of someone who has passed away. However, a little bit of digging through the search function yielded results for some websites. Facebook and MySpace have a facility for one to report a deceased user, and to request that the account be closed or memorialised.

“Memorialising the account removes certain more sensitive information like status updates and restricts profile access to confirmed friends only,” Facebook says on its website. “Please note that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. We do honour requests from close family members to close the account completely,” it adds.

Myspace logoMySpace has the same privacy policy to not give out login information and it will delete the account upon request from the next of kin. “For the sake of our users’ safety and security, however, we’ll need you to e-mail us proof of death, such as an obituary or death certificate at [email protected] com. Please write us from your personal e-mail address and tell us how you’re related to the deceased and include the deceased user’s MySpace friend ID along with your specific request to delete the profile or remove content,” it says on its website.

“If you wish to create a memorial for your loved one, you can set up a group page to honour them and link it to their profile,” it adds. The information appears under the FAQ section on MySpace, which indicates that this is a very common topic.

Meanwhile, e-mail service providers like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail have their own policies on handling the accounts of deceased users. Some will not disclose login information even to the next of kin, in keeping with their privacy policy, unless there is a court order, says this article, Life after death, in The Sydney Morning Herald. Others would allow access after they are shown documents like a death certificate, proof of relation to the deceased and power-of-attorney authorisation to the e-mail account.

But if all you want to do is to close the e-mail accounts, time can take care of that. The article notes that most of these e-mail service providers will automatically delete accounts that have remained inactive for a specific duration — usually three to nine months.

Legacy Locker logoThere are now organisations like Legacy Locker attempting to fill the gap. “[Legacy Locker is] like a digital safety deposit box — you can put passwords to all your online accounts (e-mails, photos, social networks, everything online that requires a login) in it. For every account you store, you can assign a beneficiary, someone to whom you want to entrust your digital content for the future,” Legacy Locker says on its website.

The idea is to be able to pass the information to the beneficiaries, who can then access and/or terminate your accounts — but note that this also means they can view all the information in these accounts. The bigger worry, however, is the security risk involved in placing all your passwords in one repository. If that is hacked into, there goes all your login information, and more!

All things considered, until I discover a more reliable solution, I think I’ll stick to letting my next of kin contact the social media operator to delete my account. Or leave my profile intact to haunt the rest of my friends who outlive me.

Cindy Tham has lots of good memories on Facebook.

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One Response to “Virtually still here”

  1. Main says:

    The accounts will still be ‘alive’.

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