You Can Now Appoint a Facebook “Heir” to Run Your Account After You Die
Rather than continuing to freeze the accounts of deceased users, starting today Facebook is giving members the option to elect a “legacy contact” to handle their profile posthumously. The site will also honor the wishes of people who don’t designate a legacy contact but instead appoint a “digital heir” in their will.
The legacy contact option rolls out for U.S. members today, and will be available more widely soon—to appoint your heir, head to Settings then select Security and the Legacy Contact button at the bottom of the page, where you will be prompted to either designate a Facebook friend as your contact or to have your account deleted in the event of your death. You can change your legacy contact anytime, but once the account has been inherited it can no longer be transferred. (Couples or friends who frequently travel together may want to avoid being each other’s heirs.)
Prior to today, Facebook handled user death via “memorialization,” freezing accounts and leaving posts and pictures at pre-determined privacy settings. An estimated hundreds of thousands of accounts have been frozen to date.
Unlike simply signing in to a loved one’s inactive account, the legacy contact option will hopefully allow users to foster an online community in honor of the deceased. Heirs can change profile pictures, add new friends, and, if designated by the deceased user, download an archive of posts and photos (although not the contents of private messages).
However, legacy contacts don’t have the power to edit anything the original profile-holder or their friends may have posted. Facebook spokesperson Jodi Seth explains that “we gave this a lot of thought, and ultimately decided against it.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “Facebook feared that curation responsibilities might add an extra emotional load to grieving, among other concerns.”
Although the thought of actively acknowledging my own mortality enough to elect an heir is upsetting, having a set Facebook protocol designed to help living users cope with the death of a friend is long overdue. (Google adopted a similar system in 2013.) Our online lives have become inexorably linked with our IRL ones, and the same is true of our deaths–developing traditions and a framework for online grieving might seem morbid, but it’s also a necessity.