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It is a bit of a morbid concept, but having recently had a friend die unexpectedly and having to deal with the online repercussions of this event has gotten me to thinking about what should happen to my accounts when I kick the bucket.

I haven't had any great insights yet, but here are some things I think are worth thinking about:

  1. an entry in the FAQ telling the person's loved ones what to do with respect to the account would be extremely helpful, specifically who to contact, how to contact them, and what proof is necessary
  2. some form of optional date of death on the user account screen
  3. some way to mark the user as no longer being able to generate content and blocking any attempt to login as the user.

The danger I see in implementing such features is the possibility of someone faking another person's death and thereby locking a user out of his or her account or worrying his or her friends.

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Why should it be handled at all? Usenet must have had tens of thousands of its users die, but seems to have managed without any official termination (?) process. –  nb69307 Feb 8 '10 at 21:24
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I think this would be something to just email Jeff and the dev team about and not really have a feature so to say. Then it would just be a matter of canceling the account, but leaving the contributions to the site. –  Troggy Feb 8 '10 at 21:24
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Is there another morbid question that was asked today that I am unaware of? I just had to run whois searches against a bunch of sites to a get phone numbers of the sites she frequented because they had no other contact information and the family wants to put up messages telling those communities that she is gone. This is a problem that will only increase over time. –  Chas. Owens Feb 8 '10 at 21:25
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How about +100 rep and awarding of the "Posthumous" badge? ;-) –  John Topley Feb 8 '10 at 21:31
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All of the sites have a "contact us" email 'team@stackoverflow.com' posted that goes directly to the owners/developers of the site. I am guessing you want something more formal then a general email contact? –  Troggy Feb 8 '10 at 21:34
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@Chas. Owens SO at least is a site one for providing technical answers to technical questions, not being huggy-feely. I don't use it for a "sense of community" - it isn't Twitter. –  nb69307 Feb 8 '10 at 21:39
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@Neil: Unduely harsh. Sure, it's not a social networking site, but I still feel a diffuse sense of community. If I heard that you'd been hit by a bus, I'd dedicate my next beer to you. –  dmckee Feb 8 '10 at 21:43
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@John Topley The perverse part of me likes the idea of a Posthumous badge, but I worried about the completionists committing suicide to get it. –  Chas. Owens Feb 8 '10 at 21:48
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There are over 35k users with 50+ rep. Assuming a 75 year lifespan average, there's 27k days per life, meaning that we'll have an average of 9 "death" announcements a week. There's a ton of variability due to age distribution, but this isn't a newspaper, and SO doesn't accept obituaries for users. –  Adam Davis Feb 8 '10 at 21:52
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@Pollyanna I am not talking about some system wide notification. I am talking about a change to the user's profile that could be initiated by those close to the user. Having a policy in place and noted in the FAQ prevents you having to come up with that policy when someone dies. Death is stressful for the living. This is more about being humane to those left behind than anything else. –  Chas. Owens Feb 8 '10 at 21:59
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@Chas - well, I suppose the policy should be, "If you desire any particular actions be taken with your account after your death, please give your account information to someone that can handle this for you. If you use one OpenID account with this and your other online accounts, your loved ones may find this process easier after your passing." In other words, I don't see the point in #2 and #3 for this site. –  Adam Davis Feb 8 '10 at 22:09
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@John Topley - They should get a bump to 10k rep - shouldn't they be allowed to see deleted posts in the afterlife? –  Adam Davis Feb 8 '10 at 22:17
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To all of the people voting to close this question as "too localized": people die everywhere, people die all the time, and everybody dies eventually (so far). At least use a reasonable close topic like "subjective and argumentative". –  Chas. Owens Feb 8 '10 at 22:43
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@Chas. Nah - what has posterity ever done for me? And in any case, by your reasoning we should be recording IQ, eye colour, ipod serial number and just about every other damn thing. –  nb69307 Feb 8 '10 at 22:43
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I don't plan on dying, but I'm reopening for the benefit of those who will die. –  Andrew Grimm Mar 24 '12 at 4:26

7 Answers 7

We re-examined this issue recently in light of Aaron Swartz's tragic suicide.

We concluded that, for a site like ours, a formal policy or process around memorializing the accounts of the deceased might do more harm than good.

Here's why:

  1. On a site like ours, it's not as necessary as it is on more social networks. For many, sites like Facebook serve as the primary "heartbeat" check for one's acquaintances and more distant friends. As such, the ability to convey that a user has passed serves as an important source of information for some people. Additionally, it prevents painful situations in which someone lacking shared connections with the deceased today posts a happy birthday for someone who passed, leaving other friends with the awkward and painful task of telling them that someone died some time ago. That's not to say that people don't make real connections here, and I don't mean to minimize how hard it might be to lose someone you grew to know and respect or love here, but most users' interactions on SE are more informational exchange-based, especially outside of chat.
  2. Just being absolutely certain who's dead is harder than it sounds. In less publicized cases than Aaron's, you have to worry about pranks or harassment, even if your process is reversible, as marking someone as dead can obviously cause others serious trauma. As a result, to do it at places like facebook requires not just proof of your relation to a user, but also that you provide an obituary in a publication. (Close friends of ours literally couldn't do it for their son because they didn't run an obit, and Facebook deemed the death certificate copy to be too easily forgeable.)
  3. Even when you can confirm death, the deceased's wishes can be hard to discern and honor. This is the most important reason. What happens if (for example) a husband wants a "live" account, where he can watch his deceased husband's points run up over time, representing the help he's giving others posthumously, but the parents find it uncomfortable, and want the account frozen?

In Aaron's case, he actually left a digital will of sorts:

I designate Sean B. Palmer as my virtual executor to organize such things. (And if you delete anything, Sean, I will haunt you from the grave!)

I ask that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available from aaronsw.com ... (Source)

So, for Aaron, any process we had to allow someone other than Sean Palmer to cut off access to his account would likely have superseded and contradicted his explicit wishes, which is the last thing we'd want.

Obviously, we are always happy to work with deceased users' loved ones, and we will try to accommodate requests that we believe honor the dead's wishes, but our default approach is to believe that our users who are taken from us continue to want what they did when they were alive - for their posts to help those that come after them, and for their profile to represent who they are in whatever way they decided when they filled it out.

Since I know that many reading this have Aaron's case in particular in their thoughts, I'd be remiss not to point out a couple of things worth reading:

  • Our co-founder, Jeff Atwood, a.k.a. Coding Horror wrote a powerful, candid post on the passing of Aaron Swartz.

  • Suicides can sometimes be triggers for others suffering from depression. If you're having trouble coping, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255). They're there 24/7, and are happy to talk to folks outside the US. I can't promise it'll help, but how could it possibly hurt?

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It is not unlike a book club you might join. You occasionally go the the club, people get to know you a little bit, and one day you stop attending. Meeting minutes may include your contributions to the discussion for future attendees, but there's no need to post a message to all that details the reason you are not attending.

In fact, such a public notice would be more disruptive than no notice at all. Those who are personally interested in the deceased might ask around and find someone closer to you that will then fill them in, and it will be, as it should, a private chat regarding a mutual friend.

The account does not accrue debt, nor are there any pecuniary rights associated with it. It has no extrinsic value - the reputation was associated with the knowledge and skills of the deceased, so there's no reason to pass that along in the will.

The person who owns the account might themselves choose to give their account details to a trustee if they would like something special done with the account after their death. This is what a trustee, whether legal, or merely a good friend or family member, does for one after their passing.

The deceased did not make it clear what was to happen with their account prior to death, therefore there is nothing that needs to be done, and therefore NO need to provide this in the system.

However, for those families that have concerns, they may contact team@stackoverflow.com and discuss their options with them.

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That being said, I request that my body lie in state at the SO offices and the front page of SO via live webcam for 10 days so the masses may mourn my passing. Jon Skeet, of course, will be memorialized in solid gold, peering into a computer screen, with his hand motorized to press F5 repeatedly while the other hand has him sipping tea as a monument in the lobby of SO. Should SO not have a lobby at the time of either of our passing, one shall be erected for the purpose with a trust formed in perpetuity to take care of it. –  Adam Davis Feb 8 '10 at 21:57
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You do know how many "What webcam does the Pollyanna memorial display use?" questions this will generate, don't you? –  dmckee Feb 8 '10 at 22:05
    
You should also get a time-lapse animated gif to add to your profile page. –  Chas. Owens Feb 8 '10 at 22:18
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@AdamDavis: Jon Skeet's statue should not just press F5. It should keep answering questions. –  Mechanical snail Jan 21 '13 at 20:59
    
+1, as this is pretty close to where we landed in examining this again recently. I'm posting an "official" answer, but this hit the highlights dead on. –  Jaydles Jan 23 '13 at 14:49
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@AdamDavis you are so out of touch.. I want my body mummified and to the picture of it to be used as an alert every time a user loads, refreshes or enters anything on the site.. in fact if they pass a computer! –  user223277 Aug 16 '13 at 13:01
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@Skippy "in fact if they pass a computer!" - Now THERE'S an option that should be implemented into every computer chip embedded inside all new humans. The creepier, the better I always say. "Heeeeeeere's Johnny"!! –  Fred -ii- Aug 16 '13 at 13:15
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Yeah, I'm the "New Kid in Town". Rather old, but still new. –  Fred -ii- Aug 16 '13 at 13:18
    
@Fred you are so bad! :P –  user223277 Aug 16 '13 at 13:24
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@Skippy And "good at it" all at the same while (wide grin) ;-) "A wink and a grin, goes a long way". And now, back to our regularly scheduled program. "And now back to ZORRO, starring JOHN WAYNE"! –  Fred -ii- Aug 16 '13 at 13:27

I respect this is an old post, but would like to add.

My husband and brother died at age 40 and 34 respectively (both by suicide), another close friend also died at a young age. As I was left to totally deal with my husband's affairs and many of the affairs of my brother, I feel experienced as a voice to advocate the point of view of family and loved ones surviving the "deceased" user.

If an account on Stack Exchange is left opened, after the death of a user, this is, most likely, because the loved one's of the user have left it open. An idea supporting this is facebook. Many profiles are left open, or have even been opened since a person's death. Most of these do not memorialise the person's death, as it is way people try to keep someone alive.

I believe firmly that the accounts of deceased users should be left as is. Just as the accounts "living" users (that are kept in order) are not interfered with by Stack Exchange neither should those of deceased users. The deceased user's account becomes the responsibility of the next of kin or the estate of the deceased, not the responsibility of the community. The only thing people have left when someone close to them dies, is some semblance of control over what happens to their estate. People only go through cupboards and clothing of their loved one's as they are ready to face the finality of their death. There is enough distress without our site causing any more.

My opinion for what it is worth.

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While dealing with one's online estate is an issue many highly connected people should think more about, what's the worst thing that happens to a SOFU account?

No one can get access, so it goes permanently dormant. Good questions and answers remain helping people all over the internet. Bad questions and answers remain voted into oblivion, hurting no one. The only real bummer is that contact info in the profile silently stops working. OK, not ideal, but not really a big problem either.

Maybe the team should set policy on how to handle things in the event that they get contacted by someones heirs, but there is no need for a lot of infrastructure.

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Given that you are no longer around to change the password, it is only a matter of time before someone brute forces your password. Having some method of marking a user as no longer able to log in would prevent this. –  Chas. Owens Feb 8 '10 at 21:52
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Well, number one item for policy on dead users: ability to lock the account. See, we're about half way there. –  dmckee Feb 8 '10 at 22:03
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@Chas - if you choose to use an OpenID provider or password that is susceptible to brute forcing, then your account deserves to be hacked posthumously. If you use a random alphanumeric string longer than 8 characters with an OpenID provider that blocks repeat attempts, then it would take centuries to crack. It would probably be easier to break into SO itself, or spoof the DNS servers SO uses, at which point does it really matter? –  Adam Davis Feb 8 '10 at 22:15

In April 2013, Google introduced Inactive Account Manager (aka Death Manager), offering:

Timeout period

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

Alert me

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

Notify contacts and share data

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.

Optionally delete account

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

From the help pages:

How do we detect activity?

We look at several signals to understand whether you are still using your Google Account. These include your last sign-ins, your web history, usage of Gmail (i.e., the Gmail app on your phone) and Android check-ins.

Earlier, the Dutch Mediamatic.net organized a few events on this topic, like their early 2009 Ik R.I.P. — About death and self-representation on the internet.

Their website IkRIP ("I Rest in Peace") allows one to define what to do with ones profile on their websites (including PICNIC Network).

I think the Mediamatic account settings or Google approach should be standard functionality on sites like Facebook et al. Maybe here as well? In that case, I think that "deletion" should only imply de-association of the author and their profile though. The actual posts should not be deleted, I'd say.

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One thing I am thinking about doing outside of SO specifically is setting up some form of password escrow that will allow my family to get at my usernames and passwords after I am dead. I am also giving thought to building an online deadman's switch, but there are many dangers associated with that (the possibility of bugs in the code, sites changing format, accidental trigger due to illness, the danger of putting that much power in one place, etc.).

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This is related to the book "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez amazon.com/Daemon-Daniel-Suarez/dp/0525951113 –  Brad Gilbert Feb 8 '10 at 21:59
    
There's one here: deadmansswitch.net, "it comes without any warranty" –  Benjol Jun 25 '10 at 6:10

I think it should be pretty rare that an active user dies and his real life friends/family both know about his SO account and think that anything needs to be done about it. (Stack Overflow is not a social networking site!) Rare enough that it should be handled by e-mailing the SO team rather than having any particular procedure. The appropriate action would probably be to just delete the account. All the user's questions, answers, and comments would still be there, their name would just be grey and unclickable.

Of course, if the team gets an e-mail from Alice saying that Bob has passed away, they have no way of confirming that. I guess all they could do would be to send an e-mail to Bob informing him that someone has requested that his account be closed. If he doesn't respond after some time (a month?), then his account could be removed. Of course if Alice has access to Bob's e-mail, she could just request the account deletion directly.

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I don't see a reason to delete the account at all. Only in the case where the deceased was clear that they wanted their account deleted would it appear to be the best way to handle it. –  Adam Davis Feb 8 '10 at 22:29
    
I'm with Pollyanna here. Why delete by default? It doesn't seem to achieve anything. –  dmckee Feb 8 '10 at 23:35
    
@dmckee @Pollyanna good points. my thought was that if the person wanted something changed, then it would be to delete the account. the other option would be to do nothing, in which case this feature-request wouldn't be necessary. –  Kip Feb 9 '10 at 2:49

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