I hadn't given much thought to what happens to our social media presence when we die.

But then Facebook announced last month it was changing its policy around memorials. It got me thinking about my digital afterlife, and that how we want to continue on in cyberspace is becoming more important as our lives and memories shift online.

When someone we love dies, it's long been the job of survivors to do the hard, loving work of sorting through what's left behind, the letters, photos and possessions. We divvy up what's valuable and has meaning, but also give a thought to storage: If no one wants grandmother's 50-year daily food diary, can we throw it away?

Survivors now grapple with the question of what to do with the vast palpable online life the deceased has left behind, that is if they can get access to it. And, companies are struggling with finding the right balance between respecting a person's privacy settings and being sensitive to families and friends who are grieving.

There is no uniform federal law on how to treat digital assets such as social media, but five states have passed laws that include how to handle a person's digital assets. In 2010, Oklahoma approved a law, the first in the country, to give the executor of the deceased's estate the ability to access social networking, blogging and email accounts. California is not one of the states that has tweaked its laws around post-mortem social networking accounts.


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All of this worries Irina Raicu, the director of Internet ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

"The way we use these services is like we used to use the phone, for casual interactions," she said. "That these are archived is new. I wouldn't want my mother to have an archive of all the phone call conversations I had in my life. They are meant to be ephemeral. But now we have this new problem we didn't used to have."

And besides, she says, we are entrusting our memories to companies. "It's no longer a box of letters or a video you leave in a drawer. You are leaving it to a company," she said. "It's all in a cloud. We are entrusting our memories to a company that makes no promises. I'm not blaming these companies. They are being put in the difficult position."

Online firms have differing policies for deceased users. Twitter will remove a person's account from "Who to Follow" but won't give families access to that account, according to an article in CommLaw Conspectus. A MySpace user's account dies with them. A deceased person's YouTube account can be accessed by heirs with power of attorney.

Last year, Google launched something called "Inactive Account Manager," for users to tell Google what to do with Gmail messages and other Google data should your account become inactive. For example, a Google user can choose up to 10 people to receive their data.

Then there is Facebook. The recent tweak to its policy is an effort to respect the person's privacy wishes. Now, when a person dies and their social networking page goes into "memorial mode," it will be publicly available if that is how the person had set up their page in life. Previously, Facebook only allowed "friends" to view the memorial.

"This will allow people to see memorialized profiles in a manner consistent with the deceased person's expectations of privacy," Facebook said in a blog post. "We are respecting the choices a person made in life while giving their extended community of family and friends ongoing visibility to the same content they could always see."

In the future, Facebook may want to consider giving people various post-life options when they set up their privacy settings, said Evan Selinger, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology.

"Once the change loses its novelty, users will be accustomed to taking this post-mortem issue into account when making their privacy settings," he said.

Hey, if they give me 50 ways to describe my gender, why not a bunch of options on how I want to live on perpetuity?

Of course, dealing with this issue is about personal preferences, and it's something many of us don't want to think about.

But I leave you with a positive spin.

The Internet has allowed us to bridge great distances and different worlds. It can help us bridge this moment as well, the greatest divide.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.