Still-Life with a Skull, vanitas painting.
By Philippe de Champaigne, 1602-1674, via Wikipedia

In memory of Sanam Kordestani, a friend who passed away Feb. 2010 at the age of 38. She was a friend to many and a natural networker, way before “social networking” had become fashionable.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. We all eventually get there sooner or later, whether we like it or not. We play, we learn, we love, we compete, we win, we lose, we create, we collect, … and then we leave it all behind — rich or poor, happy or miserable, loved or hated, all alone or with a large family. The best we can hope for is that we’ve done some good and have had a positive impact in the world somehow during our lifetime.

The material things tend to have a finite life — houses, furniture, electronics, cars, boats, … even the physical art and antiques may not last for ever, unless it is a priceless work of art and is preserved and protected in a museum by the experts. What however may live on for ever, is our digital assets that reside on the internet.

Nowadays there is a great deal of digital content — text, photos, audio, video — that we produce (such as this blog) that is immune to physical decay. If such content resides in an isolated storage device, a laptop or a hand-held, it may still be lost or destroyed. But once it makes it to the internet, it may live on for ever. In fact, in certain cases, it may be very difficult to have a piece of our own content removed from the internet, even if we want to. Digitization in a way results in a virtual immortalization.

Perhaps more interesting than digital content, is the virtual social and business networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace, Hi5, Ning, and the like that we build and join. I wrote at length about Digital Footprint (DF) and Virtual Social Influence (VSI) here, which have to do with the digital content we produce on the internet and more importantly our presence and influence across various networking sites. Certainly after we die, our networks are still alive as long as there are alive and active members in them, and we are virtually a part of them. So what happens to our profiles after we are gone?

This is not an easy subject and issue to deal with. In some cases the family and loved ones of a deceased may want the profile to be preserved, while in other cases they may want to have it removed. There are also legal and ethical issues as to who can and should access and potentially change the profile.

Several of the networking sites have established policies as how to deal with this, some better than others. The most well-known and reasonable such policy is Facebook’s “memorialization” process which allows a profile of a deceased user to be preserved indefinitely, subject to certain restrictions and limitations. This was first discussed on the Facebook blog at “Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook” in Oct. 2009. But even then there are people and groups on Facebook who have issues with the details of Facebook’s memorialization policy. For example, the process apparently removes access to the Notes of the deceased users which some oppose.

MySpace has published a policy for accessing or deleting a deceased user’s profile that is detailed here. LinkedIn also provides instruction on reporting a colleague’s death here, but it appears that the only option LinkedIn provides is to remove the deceased’s profile. I suppose that may make sense for business networking. Twitter does not yet seem to have any defined policy in dealing with the death of a user yet, but they will have to define one before long. Apparently in one case they have removed the profile of a deceased. But I for one would want my Twitter timeline preserved after I am gone.

Keep in mind that unless a death is formally reported to these sites by a valid source and with a proof of the death, the profile will continue to exists as before without any changes. But that may not be desirable by the family and close friends of a deceased. There may be a need for some sort of closure.

If you are interested in more on this topic, Ars Technia in “Death and social media: what happens to your life online” discusses in some detail how Facebook, MySpace and Google deal with the issue of user death. There are also other articles on this topic that you can look up.

While writing this article, I visited Sanam’s Facebook page. It is touching how frequently friends leave notes for her. I also left her a note that I was thinking of her. And I will surely share this article with her. I hope she likes it!


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