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Poll: What should happen to our digital legacy?

A study has raised an interesting question: what should happen to our digital legacy: the data we leave behind after we die?

The question was prompted by the calculation that, before the end of the century, Facebook will have more dead users than living ones …

The Guardian reports on the study.

If Facebook continues to grow at its current rate, the site could have 4.9 billion deceased members by 2100, according to a study by Oxford researchers. Even if growth had stopped entirely last year, the study finds, Facebook would be looking at about 1.4 billion dead members by 2100. By 2070, in that scenario, the dead would already outnumber the living.

That raises questions about whether our digital legacy should be retained, and if so, for how long?

The Oxford study’s remarkable figures highlight the need for overarching changes, the researchers say. Is it time to appoint social media executors? Should we collect our passwords and include them in our wills? Should our Instagram accounts become part of the historical record – how else will future civilizations be made aware of our #squadgoals?

“Facebook should invite historians, archivists, archaeologists and ethicists to participate in the process of curating the vast volume of accumulated data that we leave behind,” Watson said. “This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead.”

Facebook currently allows the account of a deceased person to be memorialized. Here’s how the social network describes this:

Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Memorialized accounts have the following key features:

The word Remembering will be shown next to the person’s name on their profile.

Depending on the privacy settings of the account, friends can share memories on the memorialized timeline.

Content the person shared (example: photos, posts) stays on Facebook and is visible on Facebook to the audience it was shared with.

Memorialized profiles don’t appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for People You May Know, ads or birthday reminders.

Additionally, you have the option of naming a ‘legacy contact’ for your account, such as a partner. They will then have the ability to exercise some control over the account.

A legacy contact can accept friend requests on behalf of a memorialized account, pin a tribute post to the profile and change the profile picture and cover photo. If the memorialized account has an area for tributes, a legacy contact will be able to decide who can see and who can post tributes.

But should such accounts remain online forever – for hundreds of years, if Facebook survives that long in some form or other? Or should there be some kind of automatic removal of the data at some stage?

And it’s not just Facebook, of course – there’s Twitter, Instagram, blog posts, you name it. Apple has already been involved in controversy over its own policies, which state that any rights to your content terminate as of your death (search for No Right of Survivorship). The only option offered is for all data to be deleted on presentation of someone’s death certificate.

Have you taken any action to control your digital legacy, like naming a legacy contact on Facebook or arranging for your passwords to be passed onto a loved one after your death? And what do you think should be the default option for those who haven’t made any arrangements? Please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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