Erasing and Memorializing the Digital Footprint
The average American has at least five social media accounts—here’s how to handle them when someone dies
When legendary film critic Roger Ebert died in 2013, fans were surprised to see his Twitter account stay active. Ebert, before his death, asked his wife Chaz to continue Tweeting on his behalf, and six years later it still regularly promotes old Ebert reviews and new content from Chaz and other film writers. What to do with a digital estate (that’s all your social media and email accounts, plus things like Apple Music and the Amazon Digital Library) may seem inconsequential compared to the other things that come up when someone dies, but in an increasingly online universe, it’s something we have to think about.
If there’s time (or if you’re writing a will for yourself!), suggest your loved one appoint a digital executor—someone who will get the passwords to all their major email and social media accounts. This has two big advantages—not only will it simplify the process of getting accounts locked and closed, but it also allows you to avoid an invasion of privacy. You might consider choosing a close friend instead of a parent, child, or spouse—it can be stressful for someone facing death to imagine their loved ones going through private messages and posts, and picking someone to do it in advance is a nice way to give a sick loved one a little more agency.
If there isn’t time, or if you’re dealing with this after the fact, there are some things that will make the process easier:
- Make a list of all known accounts—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the big ones, but also think about Pinterest, message boards, professional organizations like LinkedIn, and even dating sites.
- Start—and end—with email: if the deceased had a Gmail account (and you have access to it), start there—the email service connects to most major social media platforms, and it might be possible to log in and deactivate them without having to contact customer service. Because emails are connected to so many accounts, save closing that for last—and consider leaving it open for a few months in case any important notifications come through.
- In the absence of passwords, gather your info: You wouldn’t think it, but it can be harder to close a Facebook account than it is to shut down a credit card! Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest all require the full name of the deceased and a link to their profile, death certificates or obituaries, and—and this is key—proof that you have permission to close the account. This might mean proof that you’re the estate’s executor, or a note from the executor authorizing you to close the account.
- Get ready to fill out forms: Some sites, like professional network LinkedIn, offer a form to start the process of shutting down a profile, while others (think smaller message boards) might ask you to send an email to moderators or customer service.
- Consider the memorialization option: Facebook and Instagram both offer a ‘memorialization,’ whereby accounts are left up in a limited capacity. On Facebook, adding a legacy contact before death gets the best results—this person will be able to post photos and information about memorial services and accept or decline friend requests. Even without a legacy contact, a memorialized Facebook profile is useful—Facebook friends can share remembrances there, and it can be a good way to get into contact with friends of your loved one you might never have met. On Instagram, a memorialized profile serves as a space for friends and family to view the photos someone posted during their life. Both sites have protocols in place for ensuring memorialized pages don’t show up in ‘People You May Know’ sidebars.
Want further guidance? Check out this guide to closing the most commonly held accounts.
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