The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter wanted to be the town square. Now it’s also grappling with being a cemetery.

After outrage over a policy to delete inactive accounts, Twitter struggles with how to handle deceased users

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

Aaronekia Williams still visits her brother’s Twitter page, even though he died in 2014. She’ll read though his old jokes for a laugh, occasionally retweeting her favorites, and hopes to one day show his child all the conversations he was a part of.

“It might be a fun memory to say, ‘This is your dad’s personality,’ ” said Williams, 27, who works in marketing operations in Oakland.

Those tweets, and thousands of others from people who have died, appeared in jeopardy last week when the social media company unexpectedly sent out emails about a policy that would permanently wipe out thousands of inactive accounts like her brother’s within a few weeks.

Twitter, seemingly caught off-guard by the outrage from fans and loved ones of the deceased, slammed the brakes on the project last Wednesday, saying it would not remove any accounts until it came up with a memorialization option.

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The incident was a reminder that, more than 15 years after Myspace launched, some tech companies are still struggling to understand their role in mourning. What, if anything, do social media sites owe deceased users, their loved ones and fans, or even historians?

“People see these spaces as representations of the deceased, like a modern-day equivalent of a scrapbook,” said Jed Brubaker, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies digital identity and afterlives.

Twitter declined to comment beyond its recent tweets on the matter, which called the incident “a miss on our part.”

Social media has altered our relationships with the living, so it makes sense that it would change our relationships with the dead. More than 2 billion people are on Facebook and more than 1 billion on Instagram, where they share major life milestones and minor daily events, and stay in touch with more people than ever before. Different pieces of people’s lives are also documented across smaller services, such as Snapchat, Twitch and TikTok.

Twitter has 139 million daily active users, but that’s multiplied across potentially hundreds or thousands of tweets each. And that number doesn’t include deceased users.

Following a death, family and friends now interact with those old profiles, writing posts to say they’re thinking of them or sharing a memory or important life update with the account. On Twitter, that can mean retweeting or quote-tweeting someone’s old posts, using their handle to include them in a conversation, or sending DMs, knowing there won’t be a reply even years after their death. And when celebrities or other public figures die, fans connect online to remember them, and their tweets, in the public forum.

Brubaker says these actions are online versions of traditional graveside practices, often extending far beyond the initial mourning period. Just because a person died, it doesn’t mean your relationship with them died — it just changed, according to researchers who study mourning. You are still connected to them, still think about them, and they are still an important part of your life.

Some other tech companies are far ahead of Twitter when it comes to handling death. Facebook and Google both offer options for living users to add legacy contacts to their accounts, meaning that a chosen person can access it and make changes after the owner dies. Facebook has features that allow immediate family members to delete an account, or friends or family members to turn profiles into memorials. They all require confirmation such as an obituary, death certificate or similar evidence.

Facebook, which has a team focused on memorialization, has also developed a number of ways to handle accounts after someone dies to help the living. Earlier this year, it developed AI technology to identify which users have probably died, without someone having to fill out the form — a task that can be difficult to deal with soon after a loved one has passed away. The site will then hide potentially painful signals such as birthday reminders or suggesting that person to anyone as a friend.

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But Twitter, at least, appears to have stumbled with the issue. The reason for the new policy, Twitter later said in tweets, was to comply with General Data Protection Regulation, part of the European Union’s extensive privacy law that went into effect last year. The policy was going to be in the European Union and a few specific countries only, including India, to start. The good news is that GDPR doesn’t apply to the deceased. The bad news is that, for the most part, Twitter doesn’t seem to know who is dead.

Until now, the only feature around death Twitter had offered was a form to fill out when someone dies to request that their account be deleted. The person making the request has to have a copy of a death certificate.

In many ways, turning an active profile into a page for remembering the dead is more natural for a company like Facebook. A profile page there is personal and carefully created to reflect the highlights in a person’s life, and it can stand on its own and work as a guest book for sharing memories.

“The recognition that something has to be done posthumously with profiles was really obvious on Facebook because it was a personal space. When someone dies, the profile that exists there is really a direct manifestation of that person,” said Nina Cesare, a postdoctoral associate at Boston University’s School of Public Health who has studied social media’s role in mourning.

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Twitter is public, messier, more chaotic and can reveal a different, less intentional and sometimes more honest side of someone’s personality. It could be arguments about politics, deep dives into an area of expertise or back-and-forth exchanges with a specific community. Just backing up a single person’s Twitter profile away from the rest of the site could be confusing, with comments that don’t make sense when ripped from the context of larger conversations. On the other end, deleting old inactive accounts would leave holes in the exchanges that do remain online.

While Twitter decides how to proceed, one group is hard at work on a literal backup plan. The day after the BBC broke the news of the planned account deletions, a team of volunteer Internet archivists working with the nonprofit Internet Archive group sprung into action. They set up a form where people could request a specific account be backed up and stored in the Wayback Machine, an archive of the Web that goes back almost two decades.

“It has this massive reverberating echo across society,” said Jason Scott, an archivist heading up the team. “Because someone made up a random every-six-months rule, boom. They just destroy an entire range of human expression.”

Hours before Twitter said it was temporarily halting the policy, Scott predicted the company would reverse course. But he still thought of it as a fire drill. Even if the accounts are safe now, anything could happen years down the line. In 2013, Myspace suddenly deleted blogs and comments that contained years of conversations and personal posts. Other decommissioned services, such as Yahoo Groups and Photobucket, have had similar results.

Deleting Twitter content wouldn’t just affect individuals. Together, old tweets provide a unique snapshot of moments in time, such as the Arab Spring or the 2016 U.S. election.

During the Twitter scare, Scott received requests from spouses, children, parents and friends of people who had died. He also had scores of people asking him to preserve accounts belonging to celebrities such as Carrie Fisher and David Bowie.

By far the most pleas came from fans of K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun, who died in 2017. More than 5,000 people filled out Scott’s form just for that account, many using the same English phrases. They weren’t just fighting to keep old tweets online. They had been using his Twitter handle @realjonghyun90 in posts to connect with one another and create a fan community within Twitter dedicated to his music and life.

They also tweeted about it. “[T]he owner of this account has passed away but with all the posts on it, it still giving big comfort and source of happiness to many people until now. please don’t remove it,” said one post from a Kim Jong-hyun fan account. It has 2,400 likes.