Death is a tricky topic that becomes infinitely trickier when you add the digital nature of modern living.
It’s been estimated that Facebook alone could have 4.9 billion dead users by 2100. Actually, by as early as 2070, the dead could outnumber the living on Facebook, according to the same research. “[Facebook] will not let loved ones log into someone’s account even after their death,” says Jordan Frith, Pearce professor of professional communication at Clemson University, South Carolina. “[It] will authorize the removal of the account, but it takes a while and people have to provide proof of death, which adds extra stress during a terrible time,” says Frith. Many opt for a memorial Facebook page, which also requires proof of death. This, of course, falls in conjunction with the standard logistics of death: planning a funeral, finding and filing a will, and going through a loved one’s physical belongings.
Death alone is a growing business. In the U.S., there are about 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, with 10,000 of them turning 65 each day. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a need for services like virtual funerals and services that help people control their digital assets more than ever. In 2012, Forever.com was launched to offer online storage to its users and a digital archive of their photos, potentially sowing the first seeds of what has over the years flourished into the business of managing one’s digital legacy.
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Ninety percent of U.S. adults have no idea what happens to their digital assets, such as email and social media accounts, or online banking data and passwords when they die.
“Ask yourself, if you died today, would your partner or family find all of the above plus your financial accounts, crypto, domain names, and Google photos?” asks Rikard Steiber, founder and CEO of GoodTrust, a service that helps relatives manage digital legacies. “Most likely many of your priceless memories and assets would be lost forever,” he says. On GoodTrust, users create accounts where they list the online services they use and spell out what they want to happen after they die to make it easier for their heirs to locate the instructions. The sharing of the information can happen right away, or post-mortem—depending on the user’s wishes. The startup also experiments with innovative tools such as video reenactment technology and artificial intelligence to bring still photos to life, whereby your dead grandmother may blink at you or relay messages to you via a “digital time capsule.”
A Canadian equivalent of California-based GoodTrust is digital estate planning management solution ReadyWhen. ReadyWhen’s CEO and founder Jessie Vaid, a notary who has witnessed the signing of thousands of estate planning documents over his career says it can take up to three years and lots of agony (and funds) to settle an estate. The situation is even worse in the chaotic digital world. “If someone passes away, you need to play document detective to try to figure out all the information,” Vaid says.
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The business of death is a sobering one. And in times of national or global issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, people are forced to consider their end-of-life plan—“an issue previously carrying a lot of stigma,” says Alison Johnston, CEO of California-based Ever Loved, a tech company that makes it easier for families to manage the logistics after someone dies. Johnston describes the memorial websites users of Ever Loved can create for their departed loved ones as “tombstones for the digital age. On them, users can post an obituary, share funeral details and information on the person’s final resting place, or even livestream a funeral (a function especially sought-after during COVID, says Johnston). But the memorial website goes beyond the end of one’s life, or rather it spools backward, like a timeline of one’s life to be celebrated.
Memorial websites remain Ever Loved’s most popular product, yet small fractions of the population remain more concerned with their digital legacy than the specifics of their memorial. Three-fourths of the new users of California-headquartered Trust & Will, an online service providing a suite of estate planning tools, are millennials or Gen-Zers, says Patrick Hicks, the company’s head of legal.
In September 2021, Trust & Will surveyed 1,000 American millennials (aged between 25 and 40) about end-of-life planning and digital handovers. It found that COVID had been a catalyst for them when it comes to matters of digital legacy. Although 68% percent of millennials surveyed didn’t have a will, 72% of those who had one had either created or updated it during the pandemic. “The digital identity is more integrated with the being of a millennial or a GenZer,” says Hicks. Of course, boomers are quite preoccupied with Facebook or even Instagram themselves, but for millennials and GenZers a digital existence is something at their core, says Hicks. In the same research—whose findings were published in a report tellingly entitled “The Great Wake-Up Call”—more than half of millennials surveyed viewed giving their executor access to their social media accounts as a higher priority task than making sure the same executor had access to their emails, subscriptions or e-commerce accounts. Perhaps that is why Ali Briggs, the CEO of LifeWeb 360, a Chicago-headquartered startup that also helps with matters of digital legacy, refers to her venture as “social media for the soul.”
A user can create a LifeWeb for their person in less than three minutes, which is essentially an “outpouring of love” for the late person reflected into unlimited photo, text and video link memories. Briggs believes their business model is far removed from the logic of “digital cleaning up” after one dies. Instead, she says they focus on harnessing the love of the community during those stages when the bereaved family is emotionally not in a space to take in the love and support.
“The bereaved family can come back to these LifeWebs when they’re ready,” she says. “You can still remember your loved ones by their catchphrases, or, if they were a prankster, if they were a pain in the ass, you can say, I miss that pain in the ass!” Briggs is quick to add that users are actually invited to be feisty and to use present tense because LifeWebs are ever-growing: “Just because someone died, doesn’t mean they disappear from your life.”
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Frith says digital legacy services are interesting approaches to navigating the logistics of digital legacy after death. “If loved ones don’t have passwords and cannot access the pages of their dead, the pages then just remain online, possibly for a long time, and they may contain information people never meant to remain available after their death,” he says, though he wonders about the viability of the business models.
“Some of them, for example GoodTrust, seem to store people’s logins so they can be shared and let people create social media wills that let people dictate how their existing profiles are handled after death,” says Frith. He finds “catch-all” approaches unsustainable, expressing doubt that people are ready to trust one company to replace estate lawyers and funeral organizers.
So, is there a future in the arena of managing the digital heirlooms we leave behind? Absolutely, and a lot of competition, says Frith. Our digital legacy is already a complex and sensitive subject, and it’s going to get bigger as most of us are online in some capacity or another. We may want to be careful not to reinvent the wheel though.
“Some lawyers already do these services. If someone writes up a will with a lawyer, they can also submit a social media will and login instructions post death. I know lawyers who do exactly that,” says Frith. “Yes, there will be a lot of competition in this field, but maybe the field is not quite as novel as the companies make it out to be.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by @NickBulanovv/Twenty20