What Do You Do When a Social Media Connection Goes to the Great Beyond?

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Editor’s Note: When I originally wrote this in February of 2011, I had four (4) people in my 1st Level LinkedIn contacts who had died yet still lived on in my social media. As I re-post this in July 2017, that number has doubled. It makes me wonder: perhaps this kind of immortality is social media’s saving grace.  — JH

SOMETIMES WHEN I USE social media, I see dead people.

Just yesterday, when I was scrolling through my LinkedIn contacts, I was struck by two things: one, that these contacts represent the depth and breadth of my life and career. They’re a walking tour of all I have done, all that I have been, and all I am and still hope to be.

But, my list of contacts also represents something else – a small but slowly growing set of friends, former colleagues, and close acquaintances who, to put it gently, are no longer actively managing their online profiles.

This makes me wonder: just what do you do when one of your social media contacts goes to the great beyond?

How do you deal with death in the social media world?

I bump into them as I go through my LinkedIn contacts, and honestly, I don’t know what to do.

The more that social media – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the like – become a larger part of our lives, the more this will become an issue. A story from a few years ago from the Contra Costa Times and titled “Preparing for digital death,” made this clear:

In today’s plugged-in world, it’s beginning to feel only natural to discover via Facebook that an old friend has died. But that possibility wasn’t something many users or creators considered as social media took off. And the subject of death in the world of social networks is raising new questions. What do you do with a loved one’s digital holdings like posts, blog items and photos? How long should those items, or even memorial pages, remain floating around the Internet? And what legal rights do survivors have in dealing with these affairs?

“The modern era of the Internet is transformational,” says Jeremy Toeman, the CEO and founder of San Francisco-based Legacy Locker, which helps customers get their loved ones’ digital affairs in order. “No one has really thought it through. It shouldn’t be up to Facebook or Twitter to decide what to do (with your holdings). It should be up to you.”

But as the story points out, it is unclear what happens to someone’s social media persona once they pass away. Who gets to decide when to terminate the Facebook page or LinkedIn profile for someone who is deceased?

There seem to be very few rules or instructions indicating when the accounts get shut down and who controls that decision. And the rules that are in effect are usually in the fine print presented when you initially sign on as a member, and which few people read.

Sometimes the terms give the deceased’s legal representative, such as the spouse or the executor of the estate, control over the accounts, says Rebekah Jackson Sapirstein, a San Francisco-based attorney specializing in estate planning and trust and probate matters. “For instance, Gmail allows the legal representative to take control of the account after death. However, they require a court order to prove you are the legal representative, which people in California with a trust would not normally need.”

But, says Jackson Sapirstein, even when the deceased person has a legally established representative, they would still have to go to court.

“In California, if a person has created an estate plan and a trust, the trustee is the person appointed to handle the deceased person’s assets without court intervention,” she says. “It would take months and considerable expense for a trustee to get a court order just to access someone’s e-mail account.”

In other words, the providers — from Gmail to Twitter — hold most of the decision-making power.”

Friends and colleagues, dead but not quite gone

Yes, when people die their social media life frequently continues, as I rediscover every time I scroll through my LinkedIn contacts.

There’s Josie Cabiglio, a college classmate who worked with me on the campus newspaper way back when. Although we didn’t keep in close touch, I was stunned when I read recently in the alumni magazine that she had died of a heart attack at age 55.

Then there’s Moira Reeves – I knew her by her married name, Moira Harris – and I remember how closely we worked together back at a magazine company when she was one of my group editors. Moira was always fun-loving and full of life, not to mention a wonderfully skilled editor. That’s why I was shocked when I heard that she had been battling breast cancer, but Moira’s last e-mail to me was upbeat and confident. She was beating the disease, she told me, and I was sure she was right. When the cancer came back even stronger just a year later, I prayed for a recovery that never came.

Chris Gulker wasn’t a guy I knew well, but he was a great photographer back at the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner when I first started my media career there. He wrote and blogged about the cancer and disease that eventually killed him, and I read his courageous Facebook posts right up to his final week when he couldn’t write or dictate to his wife anymore.

Finally, I stop on the contact for Steve Plesa, an old friend who I worked with at both the L.A. Herald Examiner and then later at The Orange County Register. Steve and I had infrequent contact over the years, but he sent me a LinkedIn message just weeks before his liver finally started to crash from years of drinking.

On Feb. 13, 2009, I dropped him a brief LinkedIn note after hearing he had lost his job. He responded the next day by writing via LinkedIn, “I was laid off at the Register. Please respond to me at steveplesa@hotmail.com. I would greatly appreciate it. How are you? Many stories to tell…”

Well, I got busy and didn’t respond immediately. Sadly, I never got the chance. Steve died less than two months later, on April 8, 2009. His memorial service, like his life, was brutally frank, jarringly honest, and incredibly unique.

Leaving one last message

We all deal with death in our own way, and I felt I just had to respond to my friend Steve in some manner. So, I did the only thing that made sense: I sent him one, final LinkedIn message:

Steve,

Wherever you are, I hope you are happy and finally at peace. I’m sorry we couldn’t connect in February, and that missed opportunity haunts me now. I wish I could have had a chance to see you one last time and share a few words about our past together.

You were always a kind and decent guy with a mischievous sense of humor. That’s how I will remember you, always.

Take care old friend,

John

What will happen to your online life after you’re gone? Is it something you give any thought to?

To be honest, I don’t think about it enough but I should given how much I work and communicate using social media. We’re all doing that, of course, but in the midst of all the questions and squabbles about where and how much we should use Facebook, or what we should using it for, do we ever think about what happens when someone we know permanently falls off the grid?

That’s what these now deceased friends and acquaintances and their eerie but ongoing online presence remind me: someday we will all share in this experience together, as we seem to do so much of our modern life, online, here in the 21st Century.

NOTE: A version of this appeared in February 2011 at TLNT.com .

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