When Real Death Comes to Virtual Life – Part 1

It has been one hell of a week+ for me emotionally: four people whose lives have touched mine in various ways died in the space of ten days. Three of those used social media (mostly Twitter and Facebook), and that is how most of their friends have learned of their passing – and we learned of the fourth via the mailing list of a group of which he was a part.

It would take a much longer series of posts than I currently have the time or energy to compose to cover all of the ways social media users and their friends/family need to consider handling their digital assets and communities when the user dies. But for now I will note some specific technical tips for when (not if, increasingly) you find yourself mourning the loss of a loved one and are left with how to communicate about their departure with their social media friends.

[Note: I originally planned to cover both Twitter and Facebook in this article, but it’s already lengthy about Twitter so I will do a Part 2 about Facebook later]


Time was that the deceased’s partner/family/designated estate caretaker would go looking for the person’s address book/holiday card list/etc. in order to call or write to their friends with the sad news. Now most of this information is contained in their email accounts, cell phones, Facebook,Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. accounts. So my first message is to those of you alive at this moment:

PLEASE! DESIGNATE A FRIEND/RELATIVE TO HAVE A WAY TO ACCESS YOUR ACCOUNTS! Depending on your level of tech savvy, you can:

  • Keep all of your passwords in an app like 1Password or LastPass, and store the master password to that app someplace accessible if you die (a lockbox in your closet, a locked desk drawer, with your will at your lawyer’s office)
  • Write them down on paper, or in a notebook, and store in an accessible place.
  • There are various online services that will mail your stored passwords to designated recipients in the case you are inactive online for a certain amount of time (e.g., Deathswitch). Here’s a Forbes article with more ideas.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of examples of situations I’ve observed in the past few days, with suggestions for both the people attempting to communicate with the deceased’s friends, and for how those friends can help (and not help):

 My Relative Had Lots of Twitter Friends

Since Twitter is like a constantly flowing river of tweets it’s easy to miss something that only flows down the stream once. Fortunately I use an app that lets me segment out the accounts of certain users who I regularly find of interest, which is how I saw a tweet that posted 20 hours previously while I was playing a gig. It said:

“Friends of @twitteruser sadly say RIP. Condolences to @otheruser

I then looked at @otheruser‘s account and saw she had posted:

Hi all – I need to contact those Twitter users who know @twitteruser . Please direct message me. I’m her niece. Thank you.”

This told me that @otheruser wasn’t really familiar with Twitter, because no individual can DM (direct message) another user unless both are following each other. So I followed her, then sent a public message “@otheruser I’m a Twitter friend of @twitteruser – I’ve followed u but u must follow me back to DM.” She did, and explained her aunt had passed.

She knew her aunt had spent a lot of time on Twitter and that those interactions could be “real” friends too so was trying to get the word out. She had a good idea

“I started going through her feed and seeing who she’d tweeted most with in the past several days… and DM’d.

But unless she was able to log into @twitteruser‘s account she could not DM those others. What she could do is post public tweets that included the Twitter handle of those people, e.g.,

@aaa @bbb @ccc as friends of @twitteruser I have sad news of her passing – pls follow me to dm if u wish

which will cause the users to be notified that she “mentioned” them – much more likely to be seen by them than one post tossed into the river if tweets.

If you are not very (or at all) familiar with how to use Twitter, here are some things to keep in mind:

♦ As mentioned above, you can only send Direct Messages to someone you are following who also follows you (and you can’t DM URL addresses – it’s an anti-hacking rule of Twitter’s)

♦ Unless their account is private, you can go to http://twitter.com/username and see what accounts @username follows, plus what accounts are following @username. It’s these latter accounts (who follows your friend/relative’s account) that are likely to want to know about his/her demise. If there are not too many, the even more likely ones are those who your loved one’s account is also following. The exceptions are the obvious business/famous people accounts, as some of those just auto-follow back when you follow them, or at one time were required to follow back if they wanted to DM about a problem with your purchase or such.

♦ If they were part of a specific interest community (e.g., @twitteruser was a musician, which was how I “met” her) ask some of the users with whom they interacted to spread the word to others in their community, and to pass the information to other mutual friends. I took it upon myself to RT (retweet) the first tweet with “CC @user1, @user2, @user3” mentioned to get word to them since I knew the one general tweet would likely have gone unnoticed.

 Read Twitter’s policy about the accounts of deceased users here. Note that the only action they will take is to deactivate the account once the executor provides evidence of the user’s death and their identity – under no circumstances will they give another person access to use a personal account. So if your loved one did not leave you the password, this is the only option.

[Coming soon in Part 2: Handling the news on Facebook]

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