What happens to your Facebook when you die?


(GIF via Youtube)

The immortality of one’s digital accounts is one of the more morbid philosophical wrinkles of modern life.

Even when you’re gone, your Facebook and Twitter accounts remain. Sometimes they serve as poignant monuments to the life of the deceased; sometimes as secret repositories of photos and memories nobody else can access; sometimes as havens for haters and trolls.

Whatever happens, friends and family members who want to access those accounts often can’t. Individual services offer some recourse, sure — and as Pew laid out on Tuesday, a handful of states have, or have considered having, “digital asset laws” that govern the inheritance of things like blogs, e-mail passwords and other digital accounts. (In Idaho, for instance a personal representative of the deceased can take on — or delete — e-mail, messaging and social media accounts.) By and large, though, your accounts keep going after you’ve stopped, even if you don’t want them to.


(Pew Research Center)

That is, for the record, changing: While only seven states have digital asset laws now, 14 are considering them. And the Uniform Law Commission, a group that produces model laws for states, is working on draft legislation that would grant fiduciaries — basically, whoever is in charge of your stuff after you die — the right to inherit your digital assets the same way they inherit your physical ones. That would let them access or change or shut down your accounts as they wish.

Whether states will adopt the proposed act — and when — isn’t at all clear. But in the absence of actual legislation, some in the private sector have proposed their own solutions: There’s an entire 200-page book, “Your Digital Afterlife,” that advises readers on organizing their digital footprints for posterity, and several dozen start-ups that provide everything from “posthumous messaging” to “digital asset preservation.” More eerily, researchers at England’s Queen Mary University are working on an artificial intelligence-like technology that could eventually tweet in a user’s voice after he dies.

“When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting,” reads the project’s totally weird tagline.

For better or worse — mostly better, it would seem? — this particular technology is still years away from completion. In the meantime, we have politics: The Uniform Law Commission votes on its model legislation in July.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 7, 2014