When we think about our digital footprints, we often think about liability: What if the things we post online, our candid photos and stray thoughts, prevent us from getting a job or promotion, a college acceptance, or a scholarship? When we die, however, our digital footprint becomes a record of our having lived—on an internet that demands to be constantly fed.
What we get in return is something akin to a digital memorial—a scrapbook of what we chose to put online, or what others chose for us. For survivors of the deceased, that memorial can be unbearably eerie, a painfully incomplete portrait of a life, or it can be deeply meaningful. Some may want to purge the dead from the web, and some may want to preserve it in pixelated amber.
On May 8, Elon Musk announced he would scrub inactive profiles from Twitter, framing the concerns in shallow terms. “We’re purging accounts that have had no activity at all for several years, so you will probably see follower count drop,” Musk tweeted, acknowledging only the metric impact of the decision.
The outcry on Twitter, which Musk bought for $44 billion last year, was immediate: a large group of users—including Musk allies—pointed out their desire to maintain the accounts of loved ones, or at least asked for the option to do so.
For many, Musk was revving up his bulldozer and aiming it directly at the cemetery that houses the digital remains of their loved ones.
Elon Musk is in the death business now
For social media companies, death is difficult ethical terrain. As long as the internet has been around, people have left digital remnants, and survivors have memorialized them. In his 1993 book The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold documented the suicide of Blair Newman and its effect on fellow members of the online forum The Well. Weeks before Newman killed himself in real life, he scrubbed his entire chat history from the forum, which Rheingold called an act of “intellectual suicide.”
In the social media age, however, tech firms became ubiquitous, mediating a massive swath of human communication. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Facebook became the de facto gathering place for mourners. After lobbying by survivors, the company introduced memorialization for the profiles of dead account holders. The effect: In 2023, I can visit the Facebook page of a dead friend, which says “Remembering” to indicate the memorialization, and post on their account or read how others are remembering them.
Many websites now have features catering to one’s digital legacy. I’ve already set up my Google and Facebook accounts, among others, to transfer to my wife in case of my own death. It’s morbid stuff, but a functional way that modern citizens of the internet should think about their own mortality and what they’ll leave behind.
There’s a simple solution for Musk
Elon Musk bought a digital graveyard. Twitter, like all modern social media websites, houses the accounts of the dead. And this isn’t the first time Twitter has tried to purge inactive accounts: In 2019, the company reversed course on the same decision after provoking widespread outrage with a similar rationale.
There are two reasons I could imagine for Musk wanting to scrap inactive accounts. First, doing so could improve Twitter’s reportable metrics—its total user base matters less than its active user base, so cleaning up the site could get Twitter better numbers to report to interested advertisers. But Musk cares little about advertisers and has spent the bulk of his tenure promoting a subscription product called Twitter Blue that he wants to replace the need for ad revenue on the site.
The other reason is simpler: Hosting inactive accounts costs money. There are storage costs and additional costs of managing this data when systems need upgrading. On Facebook, for one, University of Oxford researchers estimate that dead users will outnumber the living in the coming decades—even if Facebook continues on its growth trajectory.
Perhaps we should expect tech companies like Twitter to have basic decency and preserve the accounts that family members of the deceased want preserved. But there’s a middle ground: Musk could ask people to pay a small amount of money for memorialization. Would that outrage users? Possibly. Would it favor those able to pay? Surely.
But before Musk breaks out the bulldozer, he should at least give people the option of preserving the Twitter accounts of their loved ones. For many, preservation is priceless.