Dying to be online

Written by Isra Safawi

Art Direction by Manoel do Amaral

abstract place with an eerie vibe

Data surpassed oil as the world’s biggest commodity in 2017. Our data is constantly being ‘harvested, collected, modelled and monetised’.

 We live in a hyper-connected world where things don’t seem to have happened unless you post about them. 

 An emotion hardly seems validated until it’s been shared with others online. On average, we spend a quarter of our lives online. 

 For people we never met in person, all they know about us is our digital self formed from our data spread out across the internet.

 Our online activity creates a peculiar portrait of ourselves that will unavoidably long last our lifespan. 

 So with life being lived increasing online, how is it that we have thought so little about our ‘digital death’?

It’s time we started giving our digital assets as much importance as we do with our physical ones. We need to focus on building systems that support and respect the bereaved, how different people grieve and deal with death; systems that shine light on how technology is being used at the end of a users life and how one's data rights, ownership, privacy, and control should continue after their death.

Virtual Cemeteries

We don’t know what happens to our data when we die. Who gets to own the data?  At some point, many digital platforms are going to become virtual cemeteries: Facebook could have more dead members than living ones in as little as 50 years. But modern technologies are not designed to effectively acknowledge the inevitable death of a user. 

• Until 2015 Facebook had no provision for users to manage their data after they pass. They have since then introduced a ‘Legacy Contact’ feature that allows people to assign a trusted contact who can manage their profile to a certain extent. 

• Google launched an Inactive Account Manager in 2013 that allows one to set a time period of inactivity before giving partial access of your data to a trusted contact and whether you want to have all your data deleted or not.

• More recently, Apple released a Digital Legacy feature on iOS 15 with similar functionalities and a similar confusing flow.


These initiatives are far from being enough.

To start with, most people, just like me until researching this topic, don't know that these features exist. They are so hidden within their products that one might not know about them until it's too late to act.

abstract minimalistic stairs with an eerie vibe

Our rights and choices should outlast our lives

These features also have the same privacy issues that we have with data in general: as our fingerprints are all over the internet and our data being sold and stored by third parties, it becomes almost impossible to track and manage our online presence. 

While GDPR and the California Privacy Act improved certain aspects of it. It's obscure and hard to define how much we own of our own online content and what tech companies can do with it.  Simply erasing a Google or Apple account can mean erasing an entire life of photos, contacts, emails, memories, documents, and so on.  Keeping it in their services, raised questions on ownership (who should be able to access it), financial responsibilities (if a deceased person was making income through online videos, how should that perpetuate?), and privacy - should family members be able to see emails and private messages from a deceased loved one? Technology companies already have a large influence on dictating the way we live our lives, and it is clear that in the digital age, our cultural experience of death is also being dictated by them.

Death is still a taboo

Most importantly, there are also cultural and personal perspectives and taboos around death. Each culture and each religion have a unique way of grieving or celebrating the deceased. Each person might also want to remember or celebrate their passed loved ones in different ways:  for some, it may foster a feeling of connection, for others, the responsibility bestowed upon them to make decisions on behalf of their loved one can be daunting.  In a case study by Facebook, they stated that they tried to make sure to remove what they deemed as ‘unnecessary’ reminders of the deceased such as notifications or reminders of their birthday. However, in several cultures, people like to remember their deceased loved ones.


In general, western societies don't discuss much about what comes after life. If estate planning is a hard conversation itself, our digital legacy can be an even trickier conversation to have. 

abstract minimalistic stairs with an eerie vibe

Taking Control

How can we empower people to take control of their data while they are alive? How do we support communities who are impacted by a loved one’s death and are grieving? How do we strike a balance between respecting the needs of a deceased account holders and the grieving community they have left behind?

The lack of control the grieving community had over memorialised profiles pre-legacy contact impacted them in various ways. People grieve in different ways — privately, collectively, by compartmentalising. The internet makes it possible to eliminate geographical boundaries, it allows a larger group of people to experience loss together. People grieve on a public platform because it makes them feel as though they are not alone in their pain. There is a psychological need within the grieving process to feel as though pain is not merely isolated to the person experiencing it. The continual existence of the deceased eases the pain of those involved because it causes them to feel as though their messages can still be received, and a part of their relationship can continue. At the same time, since the internet is forever it can mean that the mourning process may never come to a natural end.

The internet is forever, we aren’t. And if we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us.

Works Cited
  1. Legacy Contact: Designing and Implementing Post-mortem Stewardship at Facebook by Jed R. Brubaker & Vanessa Callison-Burch
  2. I Called Off My Wedding. The Internet Will Never Forget by Lauren Goode
  3. How to Arrange for your Digital Legacy  by Barbara Krasnoff 
  4. Death Online: Planning your Digital Afterlife by Why’d You Push That Button (Podcast)
  5. What happens to our online identities when we die? By Amelia Tait
  6. Cover photo by Friedrich Siever
  7. Installation by James Turrel
  8. M Awards by Flolin Xu

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