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The virtual afterlife of social media

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-04-25 23:26
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What should be done about the online presence of the dead?


In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were two things in life that were inevitable: death and taxes. For children of the 21st century, however, maybe that should be updated to death and social media.

Social media is unavoidable, and across hundreds of platforms, billions of accounts exist, each showcasing a miniscule fraction of human life on earth. However, nobody lives forever, and this is where the death factor comes in: what happens to someone's account when they pass away is a complicated issue, not least in China, where the subject of death is often taboo.

Facebook has recently launched an AI tool which wades through accounts, automatically identifying those of the deceased. Friends and family can also directly contact the company, to "memorialize" the account, meaning they can still visit the person's page to relive memories but will not be given painful reminders of a loved one's birthday, or prompted to invite them to events.

Facebook has also launched legacy contacts – a person nominated by a Facebook user to take control of their profile in case of their death – who will be given more controls. These people will be able to moderate posts shared in the new tributes section and change privacy settings for previous posts from the deceased loved one.

Similarly, Weibo in China has also "eulogized" deceased accounts, collecting stories of loved ones to share. In doing so, social media companies are breaking down our relationships with life and death itself and opening up a discussion on how we would like to be remembered.

"I've thought about this for a long time, especially when I read news reports of how people would look for the Weibo accounts of disaster victims and leave condolences," one Weibo commenter wrote. "It's heartwarming, but also a bit unsettling."

The conversation is beginning to open up, but many Chinese social media platforms do not yet have transparent procedures allowing users to deal with bereavement. Weibo is one of the more innovative Chinese companies on this front, stating that family members can apply to claim the account of a relative by sending evidence of the situation, potentially from a coroner.

By contrast, WeChat does not explicitly state in any of its terms of service how one can take control of someone else's account, even in case of death.

This may seem like a concern that is purely ethical, but a lack of dialogue on the issue has real consequences. More Chinese people than ever now use social media accounts to hold virtual mobile wallets. It is estimated that on a daily basis, around 70 percent of the population pays for items via their smart phones. This is a substantial amount of money which is in a legal gray area in today's increasingly mobile-centric society.

Are families able to inherit the funds of loved ones from digital accounts? Are debts which have been accumulated over time on mobile wallets the responsibility of relatives? At this time, the law is not clear on such matters. However society needs to open up the conversation more in order for these serious issues to be addressed.

We now have an opportunity to handle death in a mature and loving way that we could not do before. With social media, we can share memories of loved ones and remember their nuances and personality details in ways that were previously impossible.

This is a meaningful way in which technology can help the grieving process and bring people together. However, we need to approach this with caution and open a conversation about how we handle this sensitive subject. Without that, society cannot move on.

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