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The Ugly Side of Digital Death

The first, and lighter, angle of the ugly side of digital death is "Ghosting". An article was published about it in 2012 (Thanks Kaliya Hamlin for sending me the link). 

Information published in obituaries is useful not only for friends and relatives of the deceased, but also for strangers intending to steal the deceased's identity. Obituaries generously provide potential thieves with another aspect of useful information: when will the relevant people be away from their homes, for attending a funeral, a wake or a viewing. The thieves take advantage and use this opportunity to steal physical objects which will both provide them with additional information, and help them tie themselves to the identity of the deceased at a later stage. In some cases, upon breaking into a home, items of financial value will not be stolen - only items related to the identity being stolen: a birth certificate, an ID card, a social security card and a driver's licence. 

One such case of a posthumous stolen identity which made headlines in 2012, is of an illegal immigrant who worked for 20 years as an international airport security supervisor in New Jersey - under the identity of a person murdered in 1992. He passed background checks as he had all the documents required, including a birth certificate and a social security card. 

Another case, which made headlines in 2011, is of a Bulgarian man, who for 15 years used the stolen name and birth date of an American toddler who was kidnapped and murdered when he was three years old, in 1982. This was revealed thanks to a routine check up performed by the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, called "Operation Death Match": comparing passport applications to state death certificates. Thanks to this program, more than 150 stolen identities of the deceased were revealed, including that of a 41 years old Englishman who went under the identity of an American who passed away in 1994. 

In order to avoid "human ghosts" using the persona of someone dear to you who passed away, these article, video and post recommend that you minimize the data about the deceased you publish online, and notify all relevant parties, including credit card companies, banks and local and governmental authorities, of his or her passing. 

The second, and darker, angle of the ugly side of Digital Death is Death Trolling - a phenomenon which ranked seven in the list of the ten most disturbing online communities you might come across, published in August 2012 in the American website "The Next Web" (Thank you Ayeley Yagil for sending me this link). 

Luckily, I haven't come across this sickening, revolting phenomenon in person, of memorial pages and commemoration sites, targeted for destruction and bullying which add sorrow upon sorrow and pain upon pain - as in this case, when a memorial website for a 17 years old who killed herself in the US was mutilated

Sean Duffy displayed even greater cruelty and evilness: an English "Death Troll" who looked up children's memorial websites in order to mutilate them. He created horrible things such as a Youtube video in which the face of a 15 years old girl, who committed suicide on railway tracks, were placed on a moving train, with the soundtrack of "Thomas the Tank Engine" in the background.

In another appalling case, he wrote to the mother of a 14 years old girl who died of an epileptic seizure: "Help me Mummy, it’s hot in Hell".  

I admit it's not easy for me to put these atrocities in writing. 

Sean was arrested and jailed for 18 weeks - too short of a sentence, if you ask me. He was also banned from using social networking sites for five years - I wonder how this prohibition can be enforced. 

An earlier mention of this terrible phenomenon appears in NBC's news broadcast from March 2010 (Thank you Dr. Carmel Vaisman for sending me this link). They are addressing the same case of the 17 years old girl from the US, including quotes which are difficult to view: she committed suicide by hanging, and horrible cruelty was directed at her family as they were harassed by death trolls, bombarding them with multiple images of ropes and written remarks which included the word "hanging". The death trolls behaved in an even more appalling manner - which got omitted from this news coverage, in order to spare the viewers feelings , as can be seen (I mean, not seen) in this piece

NBC mention another - and earlier - horrifying case, from 2006, which received more media coverage - "earning" an 18 years old girl, killed in the US in a car crash when she lost control over the vehicle she was driving, her own Wikpedia entry
Photographs taken by Highway Patrol officers at the site of the crash later leaked to the Internet. They were not only posted and reposted online, but in an act of extraordinary cruelty, were sent to her family as attachments to email messages, under false, innocent headlines. They were cyber bullied so forcefully the family stopped using the internet all together for a while, took their other daughter out of school and put her into home-schooling. In this case too, the pictures fall under the category of images unfit for showing on TV - but, as it turns out, sadly for us all, can be shown online. 



I'm sorry I haven't been updating the blog lately. I've been busy with the trial against the driver who killed my brother. 
I hope to go back to writing and updating soon. 
Thank you for your patience and concern. 


'Digital Dust' Turns One Year Old, You're Invited to a Lecture (free admittance, registration in advance required)

In July 2012 the English version of the blog "Digital Dust" went online (The Hebrew version of the blog went online in June 2012 and can be found here). 
In July 2013 I'm giving a lecture at Google Campus in Tel Aviv, to mark this occasion, the blog turning one year old: "Memory, Commemoration and Self Commemoration in the Digital Era".

Entrance is free of charge, registration in advance is required. All the details can be found here
For those of you who are on Facbook, an event can be found here. Please feel free to invite your friends. 

"Haaretz" newspaper published a feature in English about the blog and me, inviting people to the lecture. You're welcome to read it here

Among the subjects I'll address in this lecture are: 
How will the 'digital footprints' we're leaving behind affect the way we'll be remembered? How will it affect the way we'll remember others? 
What shall we take with us from our home if it goes up in flames, if we no longer print pictures and place them in photo albums? 
What does Holocaust survivors have to do with holograms? 
What does gamers have to do with commemoration? 
Is immortality already available to us, only in a manner which does not include our physical bodies? 
What does Australia have to contribute to this debate? 
And what does it all have to do with realizing we all have digital and virtual assets, and it's important to manage them? 

I'll be happy to see you there.  

Google Campus, Tel Aviv 

Vered Shavit lecturing. 
Photographer: Yoram Peres
Courtesy of the Kaye Academic College of Education, Beer Sheva

How to Handle a Computer Belonging to a Deceased Relative? - My Own Way of Coping

Coping with the digital legacy of the deceased is a delicate, difficult, intricate and extremely personal matter. When I took it upon myself to go through my brother's personal computer, who was killed when he was hit by a car at the beginning of 2011, I felt very lonely, as if I was the first person on earth to deal with this heavy load (this of course is not true, but that's how I felt at the time). If you are also in this grim predicament, I would like to share with you my way of dealing with my brother's legacy. There are, of course, many ways to do this, and no one way is better than the other. This one was simply my way.

My brother was killed when he was 55 and a half years old, divorced, with two children in their early 20s. A man who lived life to the fullest, with personal and professional relationships and an unusual knack to touch the lives of many.

It was clear to me that I should have to go over his personal computers before handing them over to his children, in order to neatly "fold" away his life in the most respectable manner. There were saved files with professional material that I wanted to forward to his colleagues, there were friends who requested me to remove personal correspondence from it and I also received requests from friends and acquaintances for pictures Tal took but didn't have the chance to send out.

The email accounts
I got into each of my brother's email accounts and proceeded to do exactly the same in each:
  1. By using the search engine that all email service provider have, I searched for both the addresses and names of those who requested me to delete their correspondence with Tal. As soon as their name or address appeared, I deleted those mails from both the inbox and the sent mail box, without reading them (I mean, of course, permanent deletion, not just moving to the trash file).
  2. I arranged the mail messages according to the name of the sender, and opened the first mail from every sender with a female-sounding name: If it was a professional correspondence, I didn't touch those mails and did not open other messages from the same sender.
    If the correspondence was of a personal, private matter, I closed the message as soon as I recognized it, so I would not read anything beyond the bare minimum needed for identification, and deleted all mail received from this sender without reading them (so if you dated my brother and are now reading this post – you should know that no one other than you two read your correspondence)
    I continued in the same manner for every name in the inbox.
  3. I did the same as in article 2, this time in the "Sent Items" box: I arranged all mail messages by name of recipient, opened the first message that was sent to a recipient with a female-sounding name, and repeated the process described in the previous article.

An image I found online, demonstrating the process – this is not a print screen of my 

brother's email account

The Computer
  • I opened his Pictures folder (luckily, my brother was a highly organized person, which made the search easy) and used the operating system's search option to track down both the images I was requested to delete and those I was requested to send copies of. Sometimes the search required a few search words or values: the name of the person in the picture / the model of the motorbike in the photo /  the photo's date / the photo's location, etc., so I wished to get as many details and data, to locate the specific pictures. Luckily, I was able to track down all the pictures, although at times it took longer than expected.
  • I tracked down images and files which I thought Tal's friends and colleagues may want to have – their pictures with Tal, pictures Tal took of them, etc., and made sure they got copies.
A Very Different Approach

I admit that it was hard for me to read of the choices made by Alison Atkins' family. The 16 year-old Canadian, who died from severe Colitis, seemingly wanted to keep certain things private even after she passed, but her family did not respect her wishes:

 Alison's sister attempts to reset Alison's passwords made things worse. She couldn't reset Facebook without access to Alison's Yahoo mail account. But when she tried to log in to Yahoo, it asked her a series of "challenge" questions, put in place by Alison, which she kept getting wrong. She suspects her sister intentionally put in the wrong answers to the questions. "Very sneaky on Alison's part," she says. The same happened with Microsoft Hotmail. ...Alison's sister discovered some of Alison's most intimate thoughts and feelings... On her Tumblr account, Ms. Atkins found a password-protected second blog under the heading "you wouldn't want to know".

To me, this is a very clear "do not enter" sign. Alison's family did not think that way and did enter that blog, in which her sister found posts she described as "dark".

Alison Atkins

Alison was bedridden and aware that she was very ill. She did not die suddenly like my brother. From what I understand from the article, she did consider her digital legacy and chose not only to keep her passwords from her family, but also put obstacles if they tried entering her virtual space.

Again, I am not judging the Atkins family, in their immense pain, and it is possible that because of Alison's young age, her family members felt entitled to enter her digital life, online and virtual, after she died.

You Are Not Alone
I find it important that people who have lost their loved ones and have arrived at this post from browsing the web, may find it useful even if their choices are totally different than mine, finding solace in the fact that they are not alone in trying to cope. You are more than welcome to email me (even anonymously) with your own account of dealing with digital legacy, or even leave a comment here – perhaps reading this will be helpful for other people coping with a similar situation.

Dealing with digital legacy is hard and painful, partially – I believe – because there is yet to be any public acknowledgement of the subject: before dealing with the deceased's physical legacy and property (such as his home), it's common knowledge that the experience will be difficult, grim and painful. People prepare you for it, and you prepare yourself.

There is still no common knowledge about how difficult, grim and painful (as well as technically challenging at times) it is to enter someone's digital legacy. People around you are still unaware that they need to prepare and support you during the process, and you still do not know how to prepare for it. I hope that at least in this aspect I can be of assistance to others. I recommend reading my post "After death – caution and attention" before dealing with someone's digital legacy. Additional information you may find helpful can be found in the Technical Guide post.

Thank you Ayelet Yagil for translating this post. 


Presenting the Results of the Survey, Google Campus, Tel Aviv, July 2013

I presented the results of the survey "What shall we leave behind?" at Google's Campus in Tel Aviv on July 1st, 2013. 
A post with the results will  follow soon. In the meanwhile, here are some pictures taken during it: 

Vered Shavit presents the results

 The journalist Ido Kenan is a guest speaker at the presentation 

 Veres answers questions at the end of the presentation

Thank you Jonny Silver for these pics. 


A First of its kind Survey in Israel: What Shall We Leave Behind?

After our death, what shall we leave behind: on our computers, phones, online, in the cloud?
What shall the people who are dear to us leave behind them, once they're gone?

Would we want our loved ones to get access to what we'll leave behind?
Would we want to be granted access to what they'll leave behind?
- Facebook profiles? Emails? SMSs? Images? Texts? Websites? Blogs? 
What if it'll be important to us, or to them, for emotional reasons, to access these varied digital contents?
What if it'll be important to them, or to us, to access it for practical reasons - such as business related, or of a financial value?

In February 2013, the state of Virginia passed a new bill that will take effect soon (It was signed by the Governor in March 2013). The bill  was initiated by Ricky and Diane Rash, whose 15 year old son, Eric, committed suicide and left no farewell letter. When his grieving parents addressed Facebook, hoping some light would be shed on the circumstances that led to his death through his Facebook account, they received a negative reply and were denied access. The bill states:
Powers of personal representatives; digital accounts. Provides that the personal representative of a deceased minor has the power to assume the deceased minor's terms of service agreement for a digital account with an Internet service provider, communications service provider, or other online account service provider for the purposes of consenting to and obtaining the disclosure of the deceased minor's communications and subscriber records. The provider shall provide the personal representative with access to the deceased minor's communications and subscriber records within 60 days from the receipt of a written request from the personal representative and a copy of the deceased minor's death certificate
Do you agree with this bill? Object to it? I invite you to participate in a new, first of its kind survey in Israel. Through this survey, I hope to raise awareness to the importance of managing the digital content we shall leave behind, as well as to start a chain of reactions which will (hopefully) lead to a change in the terms of use and the legislation in Israel, prior to a local tragedy of the kind Eric's parents went through.

Last year I discovered that unlike international Internet supplier, no Israeli supplier publishes online its policy in case of a user’s death. More about this can be found in my post "The Israeli angle of Digital Death". 

This survey was initiated by this blog, Digital Dust, in collaboration with the blogs 'Room 404' by Ido Kenan and Jonny Silver and 'Blazing Science' by Dr. Roey Tzezana. I would like to thank the afore mentioned people for making this survey possible. 

This survey is short. Kindly complete it, and distribute to family, friends, colleagues etc., of all ages. Let's start this chain of reactions together. 

The survey is in Hebrew only, as I'm targeting the Israeli audience. If you read Hebrew, please click here to participate.

 Thank you Noa Ron for translating this post. 

June 4th update: More than 500 people participated. I thank you all. The survey is now closed.


Heading towards a change in Israeli legislation?

Following the meeting in ILITA (Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority in the Ministry of Justice); I had a meeting at the Ministry of Justice in early April 2013 with the following representatives: the Head of litigation and advisory department, attorney Erez Kaminitz, Director of Intellectual Property Law; attorney Howard Poliner ; attorney Ariel Zvi and interns Yishai Pearlman and Moshe Frucht; and attorney Nir Gerson, who is Head of Technology at ILITA.

I introduced the following topics: digital legacy, digital estate planning, digital and virtual assets and property; and have briefly reviewed the situation in these fields, both generally and legally:

I presented the current situation in Israel: No network provider publishes its policy in case of death of the user; some have questionable policies; another company has yet to answer: 
We focused on Israeli inheritance laws, and deconstructed basic concepts: will the definitions used worldwide will also apply here? The word inheritance bears legal meanings when using the terminology of digital inheritance, and decisions about how to treat such meanings in Israel has yet to be taken. 

This was an initial meeting, to mark the beginning of a process, but I did left the meeting feeling that such process exists, as well as people to communicate with in his regard. I met people who, recognizing the importance of this subject, appeared genuinely interested in learning more; and I do hope that as a result, Israeli legislation will eventually be changed.

I will keep updating. 

Thank you Noa Ron for translating this post. 


Google's new solution: Inactive Account Manager

Google posted an announcement on their blog on April 11th, 2013 that caused a stir, about a new service they are launching: Inactive Account Manager. More information is available here, on Google's general support, under "User Accounts".

The service allows users to pre-set for each of their Google accounts (Blogger, Google+, Picasa, YouTube) what they would like to have happen with these accounts in case something happens to them: would they like for the account to be deleted, should a family member or close friend be given access to the account and if so who, and what are the contact details for the people (up to ten) who may be allowed access.

Activating the service doesn't necessarily have to result from something as terminal as death, but rather even through something temporary like memory loss, accident, disease, disability, injury or anything else that may cause us to lose track of our account password, or to become unable to operate it.

These kinds of services have been widely available in the past - but not through the providers themselves, being offered instead through external companies that specialize in digital estate management or digital heritage. A partial list of these can be found in this post. Google is the first online service provider to be offering these services itself.

There's a difference between allowing users to choose and decide for themselves what they plan to do with their digital or virtual assets after they die - a service that until now we've only seen from specialist asset management companies - and the provider's policy determining what happens to users' digital or virtual assets after they die, without their choosing or deciding on it - which is the policy that we've seen up till now (you can find many example in this post. Google is the first trailblazer in this regard.

Google writes about their service

What should happen to your photos, emails and documents when you stop using your account? Google puts you in control.
You might want your data to be shared with a trusted friend or family member, or, you might want your account to be deleted entirely. There are many situations that might prevent you from accessing or using your Google account. Whatever the reason, we give you the option of deciding what happens to your data. 
Using Inactive Account Manager, you can decide if and when your account is treated as inactive, what happens with your data and who is notified.
Google allows users to define for each account what is the time period allowed until this account is defined as inactive: three, six, nine, 12, 15 or 18 months. The timer starts from the last time you logged into the account:

You set a timeout period, after which your account can be treated as inactive. The timeout period starts with your last sign-in to your Google account.

And on the next screen:

Google explains that it measures activity on several parameters: account logins (typing in your username and password), using the Gmail app on your mobile and using location tags (check-ins) on Android.

After the timeout period you've set-up for defining the account as inactive is nearly over, you'll receive a warning by SMS and an email sent to the alterative email address (the same address used to restore your forgotten Google account password), informing you that the account will soon be tagged as inactive, and that your pre-set instructions will take effect. The warning allows you to enter your account and stop the activation in case this is not the "real thing".

Inactive Account Manager will alert you via text message and optionally email before the timeout period ends.

And on the next screen:

If you chose for the account to be deleted, it will be erased completely, including anything you've publicly posted using this account.

If you wish, instruct Google to delete your account on your behalf.

And on the next screen:

Google allows you to define contacts for one of two purposes: to let them know the account has become inactive, or to allow them access to its content. If you chose to allow a person or several people access to your account's content, you'll need to provide Google with both their email address and phone number, so that there's no fear of the information falling into the wrong hands (if a friend or family member's account is hacked, for example).

Add trusted contacts who should be made aware that you are no longer using your account. You can also share data with them if you like.

And on the next screen:

While defining your trusted contacts as such they will not receive a notification message - it's up to the user whether or not to let them know about their new role. Google will only make contact with them whenever the inactive account instructions take effect.

If you chose only to inform them, the email message will look like this:

John Doe ( instructed Google to send you this mail automatically after John stopped using his account.
Sincerely,The Google Accounts Team
If you chose to provide them with access to your account, the email from Google will look like this:
John Doe ( instructed Google to send you this mail automatically after John stopped using his account.
John Doe has given you access to the following account data:
Web Albums 
Download John's data here
Sincerely,The Google Accounts Team
Note that unlike the solutions from digital estate or digital heritage management companies, Google will not give your chosen contacts your account password - or the ability to use it - just the option of downloading the information.

When I was in London in October 2012 at the Digital Death Day unconference, I gave the discussion I initiated the title: What can be done that hasn't yet? And what I suggested was exactly this: transfer the handling of these issues from external companies to the providers themselves.

The solution I suggested was that in the same way that signing up for an online service requires checking a box that confirms that we've read the terms of service, and without which you cannot join, that immediately after that you would have a second mandatory box where you would need to specify what you'd like to happen to this account after you die. And just as we sometimes have to confirm our password or set a new one, that we would periodically need to confirm that decision. The post detailing my unconference experience can be found here.

I'm glad to see Google taking a huge step in this direction and offering an "in house" solution - but the fact that it's optional rather than mandatory makes it good but not very good.

I thank many people who sent me the link to Google's new policy when it was published, and especially Paul Solomon, Head of Communications & Public Affairs in Google (Israel & Greece) , that kindly sent me the link immediately after it was first posted.

Thank you Uri Gonda for translating this post. 

I wrote a separate post with my thoughts regarding this tool. 

Change in Israeli Policy – Before the First Israeli Tragedy Strikes

I had a meeting in ILITA – The Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority within the Ministry of Justice – in late February 2013, with advocates Amit Ashkenazi, head of the Legal Department, and Nir Garson, head of Technology.

In February 2013, the US Senate approved a measure in Virginia that will make it easier for bereaved parents (or guardians) to obtain access to their children's social network accounts, if they have died while still minors.

The people who "got the ball rolling" in this instance were grieving parents Ricky and Diane Rash, who are longing to find what drove their 15 year old son, Eric, to commit suicide. Facebook, guarding Eric's privacy, refused to divulge the password.

In the meeting, I said: "Let's not wait for the first Israeli tragedy to 'get the ball rolling' within the system. Let's get it rolling already".
  1. Firstly, it seems to be a basic, moderate requirement, to have every Israeli Internet provider publish their policy in case of a user's death. Users deserve to know said provider's policy while they are still living (what if they don't agree with the policy, once they are aware of it?). Family and friends should also be aware of its policy, in case tragedy strikes, and they need to contact the provider to obtain access to the deceased's online material. 
    I continue to circulate the data I have culled from the eight Israeli providers, as specified in the Technical Guide and the Israeli Angle of Digital Death, but it is imperative that this information be widely available, not only through my personal blog. Also, I keep the list updated – for instance, I have approached the Saloona blog service twice regarding their policy in case of a user's death, on 21/1/13 and 12/2/13, but have yet to receive an answer.

    If there will be a regulatory demand for all providers to a) know their own policy and b) publish their policy online, we will already make progress.
  2. Secondly, I believe there should be a default option: just like the terms and conditions checkbox users must tick when joining any online service, another checkbox should be presented, in which the user agrees with the provider's policy in terms of digital legacy (allow or deny access in case anything happens to them, and if so to whom).
  3.  In addition, digital and virtual assets should be included within probate and inheritance laws, and use of digital legacy storage and guardian services should be encouraged, by adding a digital will to the legally valid wills in Israel (currently the only form of will addressed by court is a printed one – court will not address digital wills, even if signed with a trusted digital signature. More on this can be found in the Legal Aspect post).

It was an interesting conversation that included many issues such as digital legacy, the right for privacy, the right for perusal after death and the difference between Israeli and U.S. legislation.

I'll update on any developments.

Thank you Ayelet Yagil for translating this post. 


Google’s Policy - an update

Google’s Policy in case of death of a gmail account user is known and published. There are detailed guidelines, which can be found in the Gmail help tab under ‘Accessing a deceased person’s mail’. (You can also find it here in my blog, under the technical guide). 

In cases of death of a YouTube user, however, Google’s policy used to be published but was later taken offline

If you search for the word Deceased on the YouTube Help tab, the message you get is ‘Your search - deceased - did not match any answers in YouTube Help

A similar message appears when you search on Blogger; the word Deceased simply does not exist.

I turned to Google’s International Spokespeople on 22/7/12, 23/7/12, 4/12/12 and 12/2/13 to ask if there was an all-round policy for all Google products, or does the policy change from one product to another? I also asked why only the gmail users policy was published. So far I have not received a response. 

I then turned to Paul Solomon, director of communications and Spokesmanship for Google Israel and Greece, who responded immediately. Turns out Google does have a single policy, which is relevant to all their products. It appears under their general Help tags, under Accounts. Mr. Solomon also wrote: 
‘Protecting our users' security and privacy is vital, and we're constantly working to earn their trust. That means putting our users first when we receive requests for their personal information, even when it's from a grieving family. It's important for our users to know that, even after they've passed away, we'll keep their information secure and respect their reasonable privacy interests. We won't provide the private information stored in a deceased user's Google Account to family members unless a U.S. court order compels us to do so.  …  I should also say that we’re continuing to explore solutions to this very difficult issue. ‘
I pointed out to him that the manner in which this policy is published could be misleading. A person searching for the word deceased under Gmail-Help can immediately see that Google has a policy on this matter, however if the same person searches on YouTube and his search yields nothing, such a person will most likely assume that Google does not have a policy for YouTube. He/she is very unlikely to assume that there is a policy, but it is stated elsewhere. I find it hard to believe that any surfer will understand that they should keep searching for the word again, only under a different help tab, and that the response that appears there will be valid for YouTube users. This is particularly not obvious if the person searching is in mourning and/or is not too familiar with searching the internet.
Mr. Solomon promised me he would forward my suggestion that Google’s policy would be included in the Help tab of each and every Google Product, to the relevant parties at Google international.

I will continue to update on this.

Thank you Perla Mitrani - Aviram for translating this post. 


(Another) Gamer Immortalized in a Game

The article about James Payne, the British gamer who died of cancer and was immortalized in a game: Cancer patient is immortalised as 3D character in PC game, published on March 25th 2013 on Yahoo! UK & Ireland news,

24 years old James Payne passed away this year.
In October 2013 he will "star" as a commander in a Roman legion in Total War: Rome II

Reminded me of the interview I held with the famous gamer Jon NEVERDIE Jacobs, who immortalized Tina, his gamer fiance who passed away, as an avatar in a game he created 

Tina Leiu, passed away, 2005 

Tina Leiu's avatar, Island Girl, immortalized in 2010 in Next Island game

The full interview with Jon NEVERDIE Jacobs can be found here. Some of it was published in an article I wrote for ynet, here


How to notify of a death in this digital era - part 2

Receiving news regarding death is never easy, but is there a difference if you are notified by a phone call, through a newspaper obituary, text message, tweet or Facebook news feed update, than receiving an invitation to a funeral in a Facebook event?

Is there a need for new social conventions about what is acceptable or polite in the digital era, and what isn't?

Social conventions have already changed somewhat: in the past, it was customary to call when you wanted to say "Happy Birthday" or "Happy New Year". Today, more people prefer to text, and many post on friends’ Facebook pages. It’s also acceptable to get birthday party invitations - or even news of engagement and marriage - online.

Updating the relationship status in Facebook

It's interesting to note that what is acceptable in Israel regarding birthdays and engagements isn’t (yet?) acceptable, as far as weddings are concerned: it is still customary here to send printed wedding invitations by mail, and often to deliver them by hand. Elsewhere, electronic wedding invitations are common, and RSVPing is done online. (Amit Bar-Tzion, CEO and Founder of easywed, confirms that it's not only my personal impression: "There are some online invitations in Israel, but only a few. Print rules the day").
Will the social conventions in Israel change, and in the future will we accept online wedding invitations as a matter of routine

Wedding attendance - online RSVP

In Israel, we have grown to accept electronic invitations to a memorial service, to a "Shivah" (a Jewish tradition: marking the first seven days of mourning) or to a "Shloshim" (marking the first 30 days of mourning). What about electronic notices regarding death or a funeral? Are these in the same range of Israeli social conventions as weddings? What will make an online wedding invitation - or a funeral invitation - personal enough for us to feel comfortable sending and receiving them?


Are norms of "acceptable" or "polite" online affected by the social conventions in that geographical region? In Israel, religious Jewish funerals are held as soon as possible after death, sometimes as early as the same day. Elsewhere, a few days can pass from the moment of death to the funeral or service. 

In Israel, compared to abroad, there is a need to let as many people know as possible, as fast as possible, so social networks, emails etc. should have been accepted here as a legitimate way, because they answer those needs. Is there more inclination - and more time - abroad, to prepare personalized, designed invitations to a funeral or a service, which isn't available here? Will this turn the Israelis into people who more readily accept notices of bad tidings through digital formats?

A cousin of a friend of mine passed away unexpectedly. Her mother wrote on her daughter’s Facebook timeline a message: "She is no longer with us", along with the date and time of her funeral. Another cousin of his saw it and wrote to my friend: "I saw something strange posted on our cousin's Facebook page. Is this a joke?". My friend had to tell him that, sadly enough, it wasn’t.

My friend C. recently found out twice through Facebook about deaths: the first time was when the husband of her dear friend S., who passed away after a long term of illness, wrote on S.'s profile - and through her user, not through his - that she passed away, along with the details regarding the funeral. The second time was when three mutual friends of C. and her friend A. wrote in Facebook that they couldn't believe A. was gone - and she didn't know neither that he passed away nor under which circumstances it happened.
I'm guessing no one would like to find out like this

Will writing on Facebook replace coming in person to a memorial service, as writing in Facebook replaces making a phone call on a birthday? Will social networks replace the way we mark sad occasions, in the same way they changed the way we mark happy ones? Or will funerals and memorial services, like weddings, remain in the area in which we feel more comfortable in the physical sphere, rather than in the virtual one?
Will the next stage be that funerals be broadcast live on the Internet? Will it make us feel closer, as those who can't attend in person will at least be able to watch? Or will it make us feel farther apart, because less people will attend the funeral in person, and prefer watching it from afar? Will a social norm - under which it is legitimate to tweet your condolences -create a society in which more people will pay their virtual respects, and less people will be there to comfort grievers in person?  

Mourning on Twitter - from Life Insurance Finder's infographics

Andriana Cassimatis' mother passed away in 2007. In an interview to Digital Dust, she wrote: 
had so many other things to organize before the funeral, that calling each and every guest to tell them all of the details such as time, place and directions seemed a daunting task. Of course I phoned close family and friends to notify them of the actual death, but then I followed that brief phone call up with an email that contained a link to a custom website I had made for her, which contained all of the practical details. It worked very well. I was free to focus on other things and all of the guests found their way to the event. 
Andriana had four days between the time her mother passed away and the time the ceremony was held - time enough to create and upload this mini site. She also used this site as a way to communicate with the guests, asking them, for example, instead of bringing or sending flower arrangements, to make a donation to a specific breast cancer foundation. (this solution worked perfectly for her, but it doesn't mean someone else might not feel differently: that a website is too cold or too estranged of a solution, and would prefer to make these phone calls in person, or maintain direct interactions with the other grievers).   
In the past three - four years, funeral homes have started to promote the practical details of funeral events on their websites. There are also a handful of memorial sites which are beginning to offer this information as well. The problem for me is that none of these sites seems sincere or personal in any way. The overall visuals and content have never been updated to reflect our design conscious generation or include different cultures. 
Here is an example of an online invitation a funeral home posted when her aunt passed away:
As you can see, it's attached to the funeral home's main site and it has all the practical details - it's just void of any personality or representation of that person. 
Andriana feels... 
"There will never be a more appropriate event when using technology is of great benefit - usually due to tight time constraints concerning burial or cremation traditions. Technology allows us to notify a lot of people all at once. But by the very personal nature of death itself, people are still struggling with what is acceptable etiquette. That is why finding a good bridge between these two - technology and sincerity - is the key. Yes, people are much more likely to send online invitations to happy occasions such as weddings and birthdays and that is where we see the most creativity happening. Death in terms of creativity has stayed nearly stagnant".  
Following her personal experience, when she felt technology and the net failed to serve her in her hour of need. Andriana created a website which went online two weeks ago, titled Sympathy Project, offering "an online service tailored specifically for the communication around illness and death". 

Will this turn out to be a solution, and is this solution inevitable? Will there be online death notifications, only designed in a more personal way? Or will death remain in the realm we're uncomfortable to take part in virtually? 

Some of what I wrote here is in continuation to a discussion held in Digital Death Day unconference held in London in October 2012. The notes I took during it are available here

How to notify of a death in this digital era - part 1 is available here