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The Digital Graveyards Phenomenonby@jwolinsky
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The Digital Graveyards Phenomenon

by Jacob Wolinsky9mMay 12th, 2024
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Deceased users will soon outnumber living users on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and X.
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Today, more than 5.07 billion people use social media globally. In the last year, more than 259 million new social media accounts were created, equating to more than 62.6 percent of the global population now using or accessing social media.


Our dependence on these platforms as communication tools and connecting with others has meant that we’re constantly being stimulated by digital content uploaded and shared across the borderless digital landscape.


With more than 2.4 billion users worldwide, a platform such as Instagram sees roughly 95 million new photos and videos uploaded and shared daily. On average, 400 million users are active each day, which generates an imaginable amount of digital data that will help the next generation of historians, researchers, and academics unearth the cultural significance of our time.


However, with billions of active users and millions more coming online, how will social media accounts look in the future as billions of users pass through time and only leave behind a digital footprint of a life once lived?


As social media continues to grow, so will the digital graveyard it’s now becoming, creating not only psychological challenges for many but further bringing to question the importance of digital policies, legislation, and laws to help govern these digital cemeteries and how personal information is stored for the remainder of time.

The Rise of Digital Graveyards

According to ExpressVPN, deceased users will soon outnumber living users on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and X (formerly known as Twitter).


Countries such as the U.S. stand out in particular. It’s estimated that roughly 659 million deceased accounts are expected to exist by 2100, nearly double the size of the entire country’s population.


Despite being versatile and moving beyond the constructs of networking and communication, social media is fast becoming an online trove of inactive accounts, not only held by users who had forgotten their account details but more so by millions of deceased individuals who are not returning anytime soon.


A 2019 study from the University of Oxford Internet Institute estimates that by the turn of the century, Facebook, now known as Meta, will have more than 4.9 billion deceased user accounts. The paper's researchers suggest that in the coming 50 years, the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook if the platform continues growing at the pace it did in 2018.


The authors highlight how “The personal digital heritage left by the online dead are, or will at least become, part of our shared cultural heritage.”


The digital cemetery we are creating will prove invaluable for future historians uncovering the nature of our past and for the next generation; this will become a record of self-understanding of historical events, people, and cultures.


However, accommodating the shift of social media platforms will require proper planning regarding legislation, education, and advocacy for accounts belonging to deceased individuals.


For many people, the jarring reality of seeing an old friend, family member, or colleague show up on their timeline is more than simply preserving their digital heritage; it instead solidifies the belief that social media platforms have an inherent responsibility to improve how we communicate and hold onto digital legacies.

Preserving Digital Legacies

As more people come online and the number of social media users grows rapidly, platforms will need to be designed to assist individuals with their legacy planning, enabling them to leverage tools that can transfer their authority and allow loved ones to migrate their personal information and data of deceased users more effectively.


The laws and rules surrounding legacy planning on social media are still limited. For many, this leaves a psychological challenge, having to overcome the loss of a friend or family member. Not only this, but the bureaucratic elements of these platforms leave many individuals with limited power to access or remove accounts of deceased users.


Unlike our natural world, where proprietary ownership is subjected to a tremendous amount of laws and regulations, considering what will happen to our digital assets once we’ve passed away is often a multifaceted approach.


Take, for instance, property ownership or any other tangible assets. Most people plan for these assets to be legally transferred to a next of kin, a spouse, a partner, or a family member. When we begin to uncover the complexities of digital assets and how they will be managed once we’re not around anymore, conceptualizing ownership should be considered within the framework of a defined legal process.


However, these processes are few in between and are simply not established enough to help assist friends and family members in gaining access or even removing the social media accounts of a deceased user.


The millions of lingering social media accounts raise new remarks about how companies can better conceptualize the reality of providing more defined measures for planning to remove digital legacies once a person has passed away.


More than this, the millions of accounts belonging to the dead require not only authority to transfer social media profiles and personal information but, ultimately, the choice of having these accounts completely removed and erased from the digital ecosystem should a person choose to follow this route.


The importance here is perhaps more than preserving digital legacies for the sake of allowing future historians to understand our past, but instead use these developments as a way to give users more suitable choices and create a defined framework through which the proprietary ownership of these digital assets can be transferred and used appropriately.

Thinking For The Future: Preparing Digital Legacies

Planning for the future usually involves having a well-detailed plan ready that will help guide us through uncertain challenges. However, thinking for the future now involves more than understanding the importance of traditional estate planning.


Knowing what will happen to your social media accounts once you are no longer around will help open the discussion to uncover better new features social media platforms have introduced in recent years to assist living users with more suitable proprietary digital solutions.

Facebook/Meta

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has previously experienced tremendous backlash from the community over their handling of lingering accounts that belong to deceased individuals.


With the number of these accounts set to near 5 billion by the turn of the century, Facebook has started planning for the future by allowing users to choose what will happen to their accounts once they have passed on.

Memorialization

A primary option is to allow users to opt for their account to be turned into a memorialized page. This would allow friends and family members to gather and share memories on the account without it appearing in public spaces such as suggested friends lists. The profile is marked with “Remembering” next to the account holder's name.

Legacy Contact

Another option would be to assign a designated user as the trustee of your account, allowing them to manage the account once it’s memorialized. The assigned trustee can then pin specific posts and update the profile on your behalf. Certain limitations would restrict the person from accessing your messages or removing friends.

Deletion

Users can opt for their accounts to be deleted entirely after their passing. This would include other profiles and personal information linked to the primary account. Once Meta has been notified of your passing, your account, including all photos, videos, posts, and data, will be erased from their systems.

Instagram

Instagram is a photo and video-sharing platform That forms part of Meta Platforms and recently introduced some measures users can take to protect their accounts after their death.

Memorialization

A memorialized account on Instagram will work similarly to a Facebook profile, with the word “Remembering” displayed next to the user’s name. This would allow the profile to be preserved, and friends and family members can still interact with it. However, the profile will not show up in public spaces such as suggested friends or on the Explore Page.


Something to consider is that Instagram requires either a friend or family member to contact Instagram directly and provide them with the necessary documentation, such as an obituary or death certificate, to help authenticate an individual's passing and initiate the memorialization process.

Deletion

Users can select to have their account taken down once they have passed away; however, unlike Facebook, a close relative or friend must inform Instagram and provide the necessary documentation to initiate the process. This allows Instagram to permanently delete and remove any digital trace of any lingering account.


TikTok

Chinese-owned TikTok still has some limited user options available. These mainly involve a friend or family member contacting a TikTok representative directly to remove the desired account.


The process can be lengthy and requires the designated person to provide the TikTok representative with the necessary documentation, such as a death certificate or obituary, to validate the deletion or deactivation of the account.


Additionally, users can plan and assign their personal details, such as login information and password, to a designated friend or family member. This requires you to inform the person should your login details change and set up a safe way to share account details with them.

Google

Unlike other platforms, Google has more established and proactive measures for users. In short, users can use their Inactive Account Manager tool to decide what will happen to their accounts should they be inactive for a prolonged period.


For instance, users can decide whether they want their account removed after 3, 12, or 18 months of inactivity. Additionally, users can assign trusted contacts to be notified should the account remain dormant for prolonged periods.


Additionally, a relative or friend can contact a Google representative directly to request an account removal. However, like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, the representative will require individuals to submit legal documentation before removing any account.

X

The former Twitter platform offers somewhat limited options, and the only reliable solution would involve assigning a designated person or representative to submit the required documentation on your behalf.


The designated representative can submit a request for account removal or deletion. Once after that, the company will send instructions regarding the required documentation a person needs to submit.


Although X assures that the information will be dealt with confidentiality, for many people, this may be an emotional challenge, having to relive the memory of passed loved ones.


Another way to go about it is to assign a designated person, usually a close friend, spouse, or partner, and share your login information with them. This will grant them access to your profile; however, logging in from a different or unrecognized device could raise further security concerns.


Regardless of the route you choose, it's imperative that you ensure that the designated representative has full access to the necessary information to effectively remove the account and that you authorize them to share personal information with an X representative.

Snapchat

Unlike other social media platforms, Snapchat does not provide the option to turn a classic account into a memorial account. Instead, users will be required to assign a designated person to request account deletion codes from Snapchat or to inform a Snapchat representative about initiating an account deletion.


With an access code, a person may be able to access your personal Snapchat account and follow special instructions to delete the profile permanently. The process is relatively easy, and after 30 days since the deletion request, the account will be permanently deleted.


If a person does not have access codes, a designated friend or family member will need to contact Snapchat directly to inform them about the deletion of an account for a deceased person. This would mean that any person who initiates such a request will need to be in possession of the death certificate.


After successfully completing the process, Snapchat will inform you that the deletion process has started and that the account will be permanently removed.

The Importance Of Planning For Your Digital Assets

There’s no definitive explanation of what will happen to your digital legacy once you have passed away.


While some social media platforms have since developed new tools to allow users to choose what will happen with their profile once they’re no longer around, knowing that your account will most likely end up on the millions and billions of other lingering accounts of deceased users is somewhat of a jarring thought.


With digital graveyards expected to continue growing in the coming years, individual users will now be responsible for making the necessary arrangements long before their passing to ensure that their digital legacies are either preserved for future generations or perhaps wholly removed from the digital ecosystem.


Until we have more definitive rules and laws in place, the best solution is to opt for account memorialization or assign a designated living person to remove or manage your social media accounts once you’re no longer around.


Yet, it’s essential to consider how your current choices can emotionally and mentally impact those you leave behind. The choice of whether to keep these accounts around or not now draws us closer to whether we want to have a presence here on earth and continue living as a digital memory for those who loved us and for future historians to use as a link between our past and their present.