Social Media Mortuaries

29 June 2015

What happens when Facebook has more dead users than living? Should we include Twitter handles in our wills? Does digital death deserve a tombstone?


There was a funny picture posted on The Verge concerning the quantified self after death. Social network stats and other numbers tell much about contemporary people. But can we be diminished to our number of tweets, Tinder connections, and Reddit karma?


For those unfamiliar, the quantified self is a trend that seeks to create self-tracking tools and help people find meaning in their personal data. It’s becoming popular in health and finance realms; with wearable tech like FitBit, money management applications like Mint, and dozens of other products and services.


The quantified self is interesting. It temporarily turned into an obsession for me. I’ve externalized some of my mind onto digital platforms—recording books I’ve read, movies and TV shows that have influenced me, philosophies I’ve grown to adopt, categorizing life events and key experiences, and the logging of my possessions former and current. It’s an ongoing project that helps me reflect. Of course, I’m not that important—most individuals aren’t—but I like to record things and think that the quantified self can provide a form of longevity that prior technologies have not enabled over human history. While the quantified self can seem extremely egotistic (to an extent, it is), I like to think that it supports the public good. I view it as the externalized mind. By making your mind available to others, you are providing them with resources that may be beneficial. The logistics of this are fuzzy, but I believe knowledge transfer, both in industry and personal matters, is the foundation of civilization. Libraries were founded under this ideal.


With the Internet pulling information from innumerable sources, the publishing barrier has been lifted from the masses. Now, all minds can contribute to the knowledge base. Platforms for the quantified self are means to growing this base. The number of steps you take each day are primarily useful for a select few: you, your doctor, and some loved ones. But when your data is added to the pool of millions, more publicly-useful information can be garnered. Basically all user-centric Internet services can serve ulterior purposes.


Facebook, for instance, would make a mighty-fine history book and ancestral log. Currently, when users become deceased, friends may contact Facebook to request that the account is memorialized. The user’s profile then becomes a means for friends to leave notes, children to look at old pictures, and so forth. While this is important to some individuals and a nice service that Facebook provides, it’s not prioritized. What if Facebook retroactively created accounts for important figures in history? Combining with, Facebook could craft profiles and add pictures of deceased members of history to better showcase networks and connections. It could be a crowdsourced project to illustrate social history. There would be obvious gaps, but the project could improve with the future deceased—if their profiles were properly memorialized.


So I’m proposing a new startup. Since the absent penultimate -e is so trendy (probably hackneyed), let’s call it “Undertakr.” The company could be the first e-mortuary, providing archival services to the digitally deceased. It could ensure proper memorialization of Facebook profiles, manage the termination of email accounts, turn off automatic bill pays, queued Tumblr posts, and more. Since good Twitter handles are becoming increasingly rare, Undertakr could manage digital wills so children could inherit their parents’ handles or return them to the public. When new users select a handle, they could see the recorded history of all those who had held it before them. They could become part of a trivial legacy. Or maybe something more.


People are more than their data. From data, stories can be formed and legacies written. But without the data, people are only memories. They affected a few, but when those few pass away, they’re forgotten. The value they could’ve added to future generations is lost. Humans can do better.


Digital death deserves a tombstone.