Social media's lifetime legacy

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2013
teen
Ben Campbell/Fairfax NZ

LIVING ON: Maria Bradshaw – pictured with son Toran Henry’s former girlfriend, Isabella Menzies – says the fact that his Bebo page is still getting hits five years after his death is ‘‘absolutely wonderful’’.

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Carmen Maheno's Facebook page was peppered with jokes about growing older and making mistakes. The jokes took on a new significance when she died.

"Dear Self Respect, sorry about last night, with regrets . . . Alcohol." These were among her last words to the digital world.

Carmen, 38, and her husband, Ivan, were shot and killed in May, their bodies discovered in their home near Kaitaia in Northland. The couple's nephew, Edwin Maheno, is charged with their murder.

Like Carmen, more than two million New Zealanders are on Facebook, but few realise the lasting effect of their words after death. Facebook pages attract an even greater flurry of activity from far-flung family and friends once a person has died. Messages are piled on to a page, without responses.

Due to the circumstances of her death, media also trawled Carmen's page.

"I'm not on Facebook, I wouldn't know what happens on there," Neville Maheno, a cousin of Ivan's says. "It doesn't worry me because we know the full story. What anyone else says, we don't give a stuff."

Not everyone is as relaxed. Alicia McCallion's family would love control over the 23-year-old's Facebook page.

A Facebook picture of the Papakura woman, unsmiling, brown eyes gazing beneath a sweeping fringe, began appearing in the media after she was found dead in her bedroom last December. Her ex-boyfriend has been charged with her murder.

Words of mourning posted on Facebook by family members were quoted in news reports. The family were not prepared for the attention.

"It was like a bucket of cold water to see her picture there," Alicia's mum, Millie, says. "People in my age bracket don't think about things like that."

People should include digital assets among physical belongings when planning their will, lawyers argue.

Law firms are beginning to encourage people to list instructions on what they want to become of their profiles and email accounts and who they want in charge of them. Including this information means the requests will be legally binding, otherwise the issue becomes more complex, Auckland law firm Lowndes Jordan partner Rick Shera says.

A site left intact can be awkward, especially where a person has thousands of Facebook friends who may have no idea the person has died. "You can have Facebook friends still posting comments like, how are you, particularly when their birthday reminder pops up - for years later you can have people still sending happy birthday messages. It can be quite upsetting," Shera says.

"People aren't thinking about this unless prompted. It's hard to know what's going to happen while we're in the middle of this paradigm shift to digital."

Facebook offers to remove or memorialise accounts upon proof of death. This can involve sending a copy of a death certificate or link to an obituary if the password is unknown. A similar process is required for Twitter.

Facebook and Twitter also have applications which allow you to have the last word from the afterlife.

Facebook's IfIDie app lets you leave a final recorded message which an appointed trustee can give the all clear for when the time comes.

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Twitter's LivesOn app keeps tweeting on your behalf, taking cues from previous tweets under the watchful eye of a trustee.

Google's inactive account manager lets you sort what information you want deleted or passed on from services such as Gmail, YouTube and Blogger.

Other companies like Legacy Locker offer encrypted space to store passwords and information for designated recipients who must verify themselves before they take over.

But taking over a social media account can be a headache, Whangarei internet protocol lawyer Andrew Easterbrook says.

Provision of proof of death and a family connection can be time-intensive, he says, and users have no protection over what is stored on search engines as internet service providers are not bound by wills. "You've got no control over people taking a screenshot, or search engines. In that sense you're powerless."

The 590-plus friends of murdered Auckland man Shalvin Prasad continue to post heartfelt tributes on his memorialised Facebook page.

Prasad was killed days before his 22nd birthday in January. He was allegedly burned alive after recently withdrawing $30,000 from his bank account.

Shalvin's thoughts about the birthday he never got to celebrate are still visible. "Sh** my bday next weekend! lol i dnt wna be old." (sic)

The Facebook memorial page lets friends continue commenting on the closed page. No new friends can be added and log-ins are barred.

Alicia McCallion's Facebook page was not completely public, she was conscientious about keeping a low profile.

Her sister-in-law, Korrinna McCallion, says Alicia spent the weekend before her death removing old photos of her former boyfriend, Karl Eddy, the man accused of her murder.

Alicia's last posts were not controversial. They involved Korrinna's children who had recently spent a weekend with her. Korrinna is nervous at the mention of her kids' names on the page, fearing where they will end up.

"I keep looking at it, thinking I wish I could take that down so they can be kept out of it. People could use anything and I can't stop them."

The family says police are using Alicia's Facebook page as part of their investigation, and when that is finished they will consider memorialising it as they appreciate it is a therapeutic way for friends to continue their connection with Alicia.

Maria Bradshaw, whose 17-year-old son, Toran Henry, committed suicide in 2008, champions the use of social media to stay connected to a loved one.

Toran's Bebo page reached some 40,000 hits after he died. Five years later it is still receiving posts, Bradshaw says. "It's absolutely wonderful."

Toran's old school friends have been good at monitoring the site and reporting malicious comments, and the good far outweigh the bad, Bradshaw says.

Social media provides important links for family and friends with the deceased, helps them grieve, Otago University social anthropology lecturer Dr Cyril Schafer says.

Online memorial pages are part of the disenfranchising of grief, with less structured, more personal send-offs at funerals reflected in online tributes. "In the old days people would visit gravestones and have anniversaries. This is a modern form of that, and of course it can be quite political and controversial.

"People want honest tributes, especially younger people, they want it mentioned that they went out and drank and got into mischief.

"It allows people who don't feel they have that local connection to have their own form of memorial and bond."

But Bradshaw wishes it were easier for parents to get control of their dead children's pages. She has heard the frustrations of parents wanting to remove compromising shots of their teen through her suicide prevention support organisation, Casper.

"In one situation, the last photo posted of them was when they were drunk at a party and the mum wanted to take it down. Their friends overseas didn't know he had died yet.

"When you can't immediately get access to a Facebook page, that's awful."

Like Carmen, many forgotten Facebook profiles live on, not all of us realising the lasting effect of our words after death.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you can contact suicide prevention organisation Casper at casper.org.nz or freephone 0508 CASPER.

- Sunday Star Times

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