Social media is still a relatively new phenomenon, but after ten years there are already quite a few cases of accounts left behind by people who have died. And the realities of this universe being what they are, two things are guaranteed: that group is only going to grow, and someday every single one of us will join it.
This is not meant to bum you out by reminding you of your own mortality (well, maybe a little -- Happy Monday). It’s simply stating the obvious: while social media is here to stay, we as individuals are not. Therefore we, as society, have to figure out what to do with social media accounts left behind by the deceased. Several U.S. states are considering, or have already passed, legislation dealing with this issue.
The latest to do so is Nevada, where state senator Barbara Cegavske has introduced a bill that will allow the executors of wills or relatives of deceased individuals to gain access to their social media accounts. This would allow next-of-kin to close the account, maintain it as a memorial, or whatever else comes to mind (virtual Weekend at Bernie’s, perhaps?). Of course, the law anticipates that many social media users will leave instructions about what to do with their social media accounts in their will. The law would also give relatives access to email accounts, presumably so they can close them.
Currently Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma have laws on the books which allow the next-of-kin of the deceased to access their social media accounts. Connecticut and Rhode Island have laws giving them access to email accounts, but not social media.
As I’ve noted in a previous post, I like the idea of leaving up the profiles of the deceased as memorials. I might even go one further and create an all-encompassing meta-social network for the deceased -- a virtual cemetery or afterlife populated solely by the profiles of the dead, aggregated from across the Web. However you handle it, the profiles of the deceased could become valuable sources of information in the future. Descendants could add links explaining, say, family relationships for genealogical purposes, allowing children to trace their family histories online. For "important" people, you could even turn profiles into the hubs of user-generated content about the person, maybe through a Wikipedia mash-up; in the long term, the profiles of the dead would naturally become a source for historians, as well as virtual monuments and memorials to famous and accomplished people, where devotees could go to pay their respects and mingle with like-minded folk.