How to prepare for your digital afterlife

Facebook will let users set up a "legacy contact" who can manage a person's social account when they die. But what happens with the other major social networks?

You post about your kids and pets. You tweet about your travels and work. You upload videos of your dog playing in the latest snowpocalypse.

Your social sites chronicle the ups and downs, the loves and losses, the adventures and even the boredoms of your life.

So what happens to all those digital tidbits when you die?

On Thursday, Facebook announced that it's allowing users to set up a "legacy contact" -- a family member or friend who can manage a person's social account when they die.

Facebook also set up a way to be alerted when a user has died so that person's account will be memorialized. After that, the heir to the account can post a message on the page to let friends know the user died or to announce a funeral or memorial service. The legacy contact also can respond to new friend requests and update cover and profile photos.

"If someone chooses, they may give their legacy contact permission to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information they shared on Facebook," the social network said in a blog post. "Other settings will remain the same as before the account was memorialized. The legacy contact will not be able to log in as the person who passed away or see that person's private messages."

Of course, users also can set up their account so it's deleted after their death.

To make plans for an heir to take over your Facebook page, users should open Settings, then choose Security and then Legacy Contact, which is at the bottom of the page. Facebook will then give the user the option to reach out to the legacy contact.

"I like the feature," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research. "It lets people share their grief and memories after experiencing a loss. If you want to disappear when you die, you can do that. If you want to be immortalized, then you can do that too."

That's the case for Facebook. But what happens with the other major social networks like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Google+? It's a mixed bag.

A Google spokeswoman told Computerworld that the Inactive Account Manager policy for all of its sites and services, such as Gmail, Google+ and YouTube, has not changed since it was set in April 2013.

That policy allows users to set up their account so that Gmail messages or data and images from other sites will be deleted after specific periods of inactivity, such as three, six, nine or 12 months.

However, Google also lets its users pick a trusted contact to receive data from one or all of its services, including +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube.

"Before our systems take any action, we'll first warn you by sending a text message to your cellphone and email to the secondary address you've provided," wrote Andreas Tuerk, Google's product manager, in a blog post. "We hope that this new feature will enable you to plan your digital afterlife -- in a way that protects your privacy and security -- and make life easier for your loved ones after you're gone."

As for Twitter, the company notes on its site that it will work with anyone authorized to act on behalf of the deceased user's estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.

And while Facebook may own photo-sharing site Instagram, Facebook's new policy for heirs does not apply to Instagram.

With Instagram, people can go to this site to try to memorialize the account of someone who has died. Instagram also explains that memorialized accounts can't be changed -- and posts that the deceased had shared on Instagram stay on Instagram.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said he's not sure how many people care about what happens to their social accounts once they die, but as social networks become more ingrained in people's lives, they are likely to become an increasingly important part of our estates.

"I think those who care, would like a static goodbye on their site," he added.

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