My parents have always been upfront with me about their wishes for when they die. I can remember talking about cremation, living wills, and Do Not Resuscitate orders way back in middle school. But when a PR pitch came across my inbox, announcing that in a recent survey only 16 percent of baby boomers had considered their "digital legacy" and only 3 percent had taken steps to prepare their family, I realized: I had no idea what my own boomer parents wanted done with their online footprints. Curious, I called them up and had a remarkably cheerful chat about what to do with their social-media remnants.
First we established what accounts each had: My mother is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (“though I never use it”), and LinkedIn, while my dad is on Facebook, Instagram ("for sharing pictures from our trip to Mexico"), and LinkedIn. Both were quick to report that they found LinkedIn useless—evidence, I think, that they're savvy social-media users.
Next up, what did they want done with their profiles? We focused on Facebook, the one service they both used consistently. It’s a question that had already come up for my mother. A family friend, "late in his life, had someone set up an account for him and it was active for a couple of years. When he died, nobody took it down, so I'll still get notified of his birthday. That account is still just floating out there.” For her, it’s “disturbing” to get that reminder once a year. Not an ideal situation.
So, what, then, did they want done with their Facebook profiles? “I don't understand what the choices are,” said my dad. “You could just take the thing down, right?”
“If you're dead, you can’t,” my mother interjected. “They need your password.”
“True,” he replied. “And I’d have to remember my password.” We decided that passwords would be collected into something like the password-aggregating service LastPass or given to the executor of their will.
But what would I do with those passwords? I quickly walked them through the idea of “memorializing” them on Facebook—notifying the service that they had passed, so things like birthday reminders wouldn’t pop up, but still allowing their profile to remain visible. Would they want something like that done for them, instead of full deletion?
My father seemed into the idea. “It’s a bit like a scrapbook or a family album, in a way. It’s an interesting way to let people get a more personal view than an obituary—what this person was interested in, if they had a sense of humor, or whatever was important to them. The memorial thing sounds like a good deal, honestly.”
My mother, on the other hand, was a bit more leery. “I would maybe like a limited-time memorial, and then have it be gone.”
“How about the great-grandkids?” asked my dad. “Twenty, 30, 40 years from now, who never knew us.”
"I'm not sure that they would want to read my Facebook,” she replied. “For me there are better ways for the great-grandkids to know us and know what was important to us. I think six months of a memorial and then delete it.”
She continued: “Just like we’ve given you and your sister a pretty clear sense about what we wanted when we die, this is something where we need make our wishes known. I had not even thought about this. I would guess most people of our generation haven't—social media came along so late in our lives. I think a lot more about where to scatter my ashes."
My dad chimed in: “Talking about it now makes it a lot easier, so you don't have to debate with your sister about what to do with the Facebook. Like with the DNR, this is just another aspect.”
I was satisfied that I had a rough idea of what their wishes were—a memorial page for my dad, a temporary one for my mother, and deleting all their other social-media profiles. As the call wound down, my mom waxed philosophical about the effect of thinking of social media as your “digital legacy.”
“One of the things I dislike about Facebook is people have the tendency to 'curate' their lives,” she said. “If you know that this is going to be the legacy you leave, you'd have even more of a tendency to do that. It just creates a lot of fake-y stuff, I think, if you're always thinking about that. It's a double-edged sword, I guess.”
It was a fair point. My own preference, I told them, was that after my own death, all my social-media accounts would be quickly and immediately deleted.
"Good call," said my dad.