Til' death do you tweet? Social media survives in your wake

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What happens after you die? One of the most existential questions of all time takes on a whole new meaning when you add technology to the mix.

With the recent untimely passing of Heavy D and the profusion of re-tweets of his final tweet — ‘Be Inspired’ —- the obvious addendum to this question now becomes “what happens to your online identity when you die?”

Think about it: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google+, etc., etc. When you add up the number of online accounts you have, totals could reach the double digits very quickly. And even beyond just social media, you have online bank and credit card accounts, PayPal, and online music and shopping accounts as well.

According to Famecount.com, a tally of new Twitter followers per week for Heavy D jumped from 1,353 on November 7th, the day before his death, to 41,729 on November 10th.

So while it’s clear that his memory and legacy will continue to live online, is that what you want for yourself or your loved ones? Keep in mind that the privacy policies of each online account you have might protect you while you’re alive, but once you’re gone, the administration of your personal information is at the discretion of the site itself. What, if anything, can you do to ensure that your online identity doesn’t last into eternity?

According to policy statements from Facebook and Twitter, there is an option for loved ones to delete accounts of the deceased. Facebook even goes so far as to offer a ‘memorialize’ option, where you can keep the account of a deceased relative open for confirmed friends to post remembrances to the wall.

Currently, Facebook has almost 2 million deceased profiles on their site. Twitter will delete a deceased user’s account by special request and recover all public tweets for the requester. In both cases, proof of your relation to the deceased as well as a public obituary or death certificate is required to honor the request.
Gmail has a similar process, but the person deactivating the account must have actually received an email from the deceased user at some point.

Hotmail will actually send all of your emails and your contacts list to the person requesting your account deactivation, which may not necessarily be a good thing depending on what’s in your inbox.

PayPal will close an account given a death certificate as documentation, but will issue a check for any remaining funds in the name of the account holder, and that may raise problems for beneficiaries of the deceased. And in all of these cases, you would still need someone else to make the arrangements to handle the deactivation and/or deletion of the accounts.

So what steps can you take to make sure your online identity doesn’t outlive your physical one? The easiest way to manage your online life after your death is to create a digital will. A digital will serves the same purpose as a regular will, only in the space of the Internet. It allows you to protect your digital assets in the same way a will protects your physical assets. Your digital will can answer the questions of how to properly handle your online info.

Maybe you actually want your profiles to be maintained in perpetuity, or maybe you want those Facebook pictures to be taken down immediately. The digital will would name a digital executor who would go through your listed accounts, making sure everything was deleted properly.

There are even services online such as Legacy Locker which store all of your account info and passwords securely and give access to designated loved ones in the event of your disability or death.

Now you might be thinking, “What difference does all of this make when I’m dead?” I think the issue comes in not only protecting your privacy, but the privacy of anyone you may have interacted with online. Consider those emails sent from a ‘special friend’ that were only ever intended for you but could become public knowledge once you’re gone. Or the fact that anyone else’s personal information, including contact info can end up in the wrong hands if you haven’t taken the necessary precautions to make sure it gets properly deleted.

So the next time you sit down to think about getting your affairs in order, don’t forget about your online affairs — a little advance preparation can eliminate potentially negative consequences down the road.

Tech-life expert Stephanie Humphrey is a blogger and media personality. You can follow her on twitter @TechLifeSteph.