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A few years ago when one of my best friends fell terminally ill, I used to go on his WhatsApp account just to see if he’s online or, if he’s off, for how long. I shouldn’t be the only one who’s gone through such period of alternating reassurances and premonitions when one has a sick friend or family member.
When the moment of truth came, I got a message from him, well, his WhatsApp account, saying, ‘This is his wife. My husband has passed away.’
Facebook’s users passed the 2 billion mark in 2017. The crude death rate of the world population in 2017 is 7.617, meaning there were 7.617 deaths per 1,000 people. That translates into a mortality of roughly 15 million Facebook users in that year. That’s a lot of accounts being rendered inactive henceforth. While the deceased would be buried soon, a large amount of data (texts, pictures, other monetizable data) get locked away in the servers of Facebook and other social networking sites.
The laws of succession do not apply to digital legacy. You can’t pass your digital footprints to your next-of-kin or loved ones. Those remain the property of the social media hosts, which rarely accede to the requests of families and friends for access to the contents on the departed’s accounts, often on the ridiculous grounds of privacy. But in law privacy ceases on death.
Facebook allows a person to choose to either have her account deleted after her death or appoint another to be the ‘legacy contact’, sort of a digital executor, who can change the settings, edit the contents and decide who can browse/write what in the posthumous account. When Facebook becomes aware that any account-holder is dead it would turn the account into a ‘memorialized account’. Friends can still see its contents or leave RIPs, but no one can login or change the contents except the legacy contact. Facebook will not send any more ads, ‘People You May Know’, and birthday reminders—a hugely merciful act.
I have not checked in at any of my late friend’s sites on the web since. I prefer paying respects at his gravesite. Perhaps my mourning isn’t over and I can’t bear to relive the happy faces, witty words and most of all the voice messages. Neither have I unfriended him. To do so is almost sacrilegious.
This article was originally published in No. 541, Newsletter in Aug 2019.