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Study on Facebook Mourning

A recent post in TechVibes alerted me to a new academic study of Facebook and mourning.

“Two researchers at the University of Toronto—Profeessor Rhonda McEwen and Librarian Kathleen Scheaffer—have completed a study on the methods and consequences of mourning on Facebook.”

According to the TechVibes article, the authors make 3 recommendations:

  • Offer “digital estate options” to determine who can control the profile postmortem.
  • Lock a dead person’s account, and automatically delete it after 50 years.
  • Enable Facebook friends the same access to the page, respecting the privacy filters. Disable direct messaging to prevent shenanigans. Remove the profile from search. Enable loved ones to create memorial pages.

Interestingly, I’ve advocated for years that users need more options to control what happens to their Facebook accounts after death. It’s good to see this coming from other voices too.

The abstract of “Virtual Mourning and Memory Construction on Facebook” is below. Get the full study here.

This article investigates the online information practices of persons grieving and mourning via Facebook. It examines how, or whether, these practices and Facebook’s terms of use policies have implications for the bereaved and/or the memory of the deceased. To explore these questions, we compared traditional publicly recorded asynchronous modes of grieving (i.e., obituaries) with Facebook’s asynchronous features (i.e., pages, photos, messages, profiles, comments). Additionally, by applying observational techniques to Facebook memorial pages and Facebook profiles, conducting a survey, and interviewing respondents as a follow-up to the survey, we examined the benefits of and issues surrounding online information sharing via Facebook when coping with the loss of another. We found that the immediacy of publishing comments, messages, wall posts, and photos provides Facebook mourners with a quick outlet for their emotions and a means of timely group support; however, these actions directly affect the online curation of the deceased’s self and memory and also create an environment of competition among mourners. The aforementioned benefits and complications of using Facebook during bereavement are shaped by the policies outlined by the social media platform.

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Family’s Court Order for Facebook

Recently, I spoke with a Jessica Hopper at NBC Rock Center who was investigating digital legacy. Her story features the Stassen’s, a family who is seeking some answers behind their son’s suicide and are turning to Facebook to find them.

The family has obtained a court order to gain access to their son’s Facebook account on grounds that they are heirs to his estate, and as such, they are entitled to all of his assets, including digital digital, and the contents of his Facebook account. Aside from the publicly posted items, they are curious about what private information might reveal about his death.

His parents speak candidly about it in this video:

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In the supporting article, Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University, commented, “What happens if a 21-year-old had a safe deposit box at the bank, the answer is the safe deposit box belongs to his estate and whoever controls the estate gets to open the box.”

“When somebody dies, the person who is responsible for taking care of the individual’s asset is supposed to be complying with what the individual wanted and protecting the individual,” said Naomi Cahn, a George Washington University law professor.  “Because so many people have not thought about this, we don’t know what the person actually wanted…we can all imagine what’s in internet accounts. There may certainly be cases where the person who died would not have wanted anyone to get anywhere near the person’s account.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Where do you stand on this? Do you believe that the heirs to the estate should have full access to digital accounts? Or do you believe that the online services have a responsibility to protect their users’ privacy, even after death?

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Celebrities Declaring Digital Death

buylifeDigital Life Sacrifice has celebrities Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hudson, Ryan Seacrest and Alicia Keys “dying” on Facebook and Twitter accounts on December 1 for World Aids Day.

According to the Associated Press, “celebrities have filmed ‘last tweet and testament’ videos and will appear in ads showing them lying in coffins to represent what the campaign calls their digital deaths.”

The site BuyLife.org declares that the celebrities will die on December 1 but “you can buy their lives back.” The goal is to raise  $1 million for Keys’ charity Keep A Child Alive, which supports treatment and care of children with AIDS and their families in Africa and India.

Lady Gaga has more than 7 million followers on Twitter and almost 24 million fans on Facebook. She and the other celebrities will sign off of their social networks until $1 million is raised.

“We’re trying to sort of make the remark: Why do we care so much about the death of one celebrity as opposed to millions and millions of people dying in the place that we’re all from?” said Leigh Blake, the president and co-founder of Keep a Child Alive.

It is a creative way to leverage the large number of social network celebrity supporters and draw attention to a very worthy cause. I wonder if this high-profile action will have the secondary effect of making people think about their own digital legacy and what would happen to their social profiles if they died.

In the press release, Alicia Keys called for more people to give up their social network activity as part of the campaign. “It just doesn’t have to be just because you’re a celebrity or something like that. It can be anybody.”

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Download Your Content From Facebook

Facebook announced a new feature yesterday that allows you to download all of your photos, videos, wall posts, notes, messages, events and friends. This data accessibility feature is a major step for Facebook, which has always been a “walled garden” – a place to put information, but very difficult to extract it again.

The ability to retrieve content  from your Facebook account will be tremendously helpful to those who are struggling with the online accounts of a departed loved one. Provided you know the email address and password to the deceased’s account, you can archive their content in case it is needed or wanted in the future.

This feature is also useful for those who wish to deactivate their loved ones’ Facebook account after death as it offers a way to safeguard the data before it is removed from the web. (Be advised, though, that Facebook retains all users’ data on their servers after account deactivation, even if the account is no longer publicly accessible on the web. There is currently no way to permanently delete an account from Facebook.)

Here is a video explaining the steps. The roll out of this new feature to its 500 million users will be incremental (I haven’t yet received it).

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