What Happens Online When You Die?

Information verified correct on September 30th, 2016

The link between death and our online profiles hits the closest to home when we see a news report or a story in the paper about a sudden death – usually a teenager – and the grainy photo accompanying the story has all the hallmarks of being a Facebook profile picture. It is then that we think ‘is that how I’d want the world to see me if I died suddenly, as I am on Facebook?’

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While it’s a scary thought, the thought usually passes quickly, possibly accompanied with a new status update and a quick image change. However, there are a lot of people who have given the issue of digital death a lot more thought. Leading technologists around the world are grappling with the possibilities of what will happen to our online selves when we die. Currently there are no uniform policies across social media and online profiling sites regarding what happens when one of their users dies. As a result this raises questions about:

  • Privacy: Do you want anyone else accessing your Facebook or Twitter profiles and going through your emails after you’ve died? What about digital assets which are jointly held?
  • Access: Are you leaving behind the login details and passwords needed for a friend or family member to deactivate your accounts? Should the sites themselves automatically grant access to a deceased profile if a family member wants to close the account?
  • Legacy: Do you want your online self to remain ‘live’ as a legacy? Do you want friends and family to continue posting in your name? How do you want to preserve your online interactions and how will that data stay relevant as file formats and technology change and develop?

Digital Death Day

Digital Death Day
While there may not be a holistic approach to what happens online when you die, there are a number of unique initiatives raising awareness and trialling new ideas and systems to make digital death easier to manage. For example, when the Digital Death Day conferences were held in North America in May 2011 this was the third time that attorneys, entrepreneurs, funeral directors, estate planners, researchers, archivists and leading thinkers gathered to have the conversation about the issues of family, privacy, digital property rights and the archiving and curating of data for anthropologists and future generations.

Digital Death Day calls itself an ‘unconference’ where all of the attendees work closely together to explore options for dealing with online profiles after death. Everyone is able to contribute and the first morning is spent creating a multi-track agenda from the feedback of all attendees, which makes for vibrant and relevant content. Digital Death Day explores the fact that while death is a part of life, what does that mean when life has become largely digital?

Digital Death Resources

The conversation about what happens online when you die is of course taking place online too with blogs such as Death and Digital Legacy http://www.deathanddigitallegacy.com/which covers topics such as how to download data from a deceased Facebook profile, how to make sure your online storage of posts, photos and files are really preserved electronically and whether you’d want your family to notify your friends of your death using your own Facebook profile.

John Romano and Evan Carroll have even written a book called Your Digital Afterlife http://www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/ which compares the legacy of photo albums, diaries and video tapes left behind by our grandparents, to the plethora of thoughts, feelings, images and memories we leave behind online. Your Digital Afterlife also discusses the issues surrounding passwords and who really owns your online content, as well as how that content can be preserved as file formats change.

Adam Ostrow takes the preservation of our online selves a step further in his speech at a TED conference http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/2011/08/digital-legacy-presented-at-ted-global-2011/. Ostrow’s speech titled After Your Final Status Update asks whether we could, or should, be putting our online profiles in the hands of evolving technology in order to live on – there are already programs which can predict your next tweet based on your past posts, so why not upload the collective of your online interactions into a robot, or project your personality as a hologram to go on interacting with your family and friends after you die?

What happens online when you die?

Digital Death Used to Save Lives

The conversation around digital death is also being used to stop unnecessary deaths from HIV and AIDS in Africa and India. The Digital Death Campaign to Keep a Child Alive http://buylife.org/about.php began on World AIDS Day, 1 December, with the world’s most followed celebrities sacrificing their digital selves. This means that the celebrities’ Facebook and Twitter profiles go silent until a donation of $1,000,000 is reached to bring their online selves back to life. Plus, you can sacrifice your own digital life and encourage your friends and family to donate to the Keep a Child Alive campaign, and bring you back to life online.

Three Facebook Users Die Every Minute

At this rate that means that there will be 1.78 million Facebook accounts in limbo in 2011 because those users hadn’t prepared for their digital death. That’s the equivalent of the population of Western Australia, and as users and status updates continue to grow exponentially, how many deceased pages will there be in 10 years, how will Facebook and the probably non-tech savvy families of these people manage this amount of digital content?

In 2011 there are over 500 million people on Facebook and that number is expected to double by the end of the year to 1 billion users. As you think about those numbers, consider the fact that around 1 billion pieces of information are shared on Facebook every day. That is a staggering amount of information that we all felt compelled to share, so if it was important enough to post, isn’t it important enough to preserve?

However, despite digital content growing so rapidly, there are no plans for a way to manage, archive and remove our digital content when we die. For example, if you die and your friends or family want to close down your Facebook account they have to fill out a form and provide a link to your obituary. If a copy of a death certificate is sent to MySpace or eBay the account will be closed however, closing one of the 20 million eHarmony accounts can only be done by a power of attorney who even then can’t gain access to the account.

There are 100 million tweets being posted each day from the 175 million users, and Twitter will allow a family member to save a copy of your tweets if you die, but no one else will be given access to your account.

Do you want to leave a digital legacy or have your digital self euthanised after your death?

While you are alive you have absolute control over your online profiles and this is one of the main attractions of the medium – the fact that you can share your thoughts, your feelings, your questions and your experiences freely, with whomever you choose. As a result you are creating a rich database of yourself and your life experiences and isn’t that exactly why we put photos in photo albums, keep diaries, have children and grow businesses – so we can leave something behind to be remembered by? So would you want to live on through your online self or would you rather leave the physical and the digital plane all together?

Digital Privacy

While most social media and online accounts have a policy to dictate what happens to your account when you die, there is still an overarching policy to protect your privacy when you are gone. For example, do you want your parents reading your Facebook status updates or do you want your partner reading through your private emails? Take a second to think about the contents of your inbox or the photos on your Facebook page – what digital dirty laundry would you be leaving behind if you died? However, it’s not only your own privacy that you should be protecting when you die, consider what would happen to the private messages stored in your Facebook or Twitter accounts, or emails which contain private information about friends, family, clients or colleagues. When you die, once private information is no longer bound by the terms and conditions of your friendship, but by the terms and conditions of your email provider or social network.

The various deceased policies of social media sites you may use include:

  • Twitter: Family and friends can notify Twitter of your death and your account will be removed. Family members can also save a backup of all of your public tweets. Twitter simply needs the name and contact details of the family or friend deactivating the deceased account and their relationship to the deceased, the username of the deceased Twitter account or a link to the profile page, and a link to a public obituary or news article. Twitter has the specific privacy@twitter.com email address for this process.
  • Facebook: Facebook has a feature where you can download all of your photos, videos, wall posts, notes, messages, events and friends which can be great for your records, as well as help your family manage your account after your death. Your family will need to know your username and password to access your account and archive the information and deactivate your account. However, even when a Facebook account has been deactivated, Facebook itself retains a copy of all information and there is currently no way to permanently delete a profile. Or family or friends can also complete a form and provide a link to an obituary to confirm your death and your profile will be officially memorialised. This means you won’t show up in Facebook suggestions and status updates won’t show up in the news feeds but your profile will remain as an online memorial.
  • MySpace: If MySpace are sent proof of death they will cancel a deceased user’s account.
  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn will also close your account if they receive confirmation of your death.
  • YouTube: YouTube allows your heir or power of attorney control of your account and all of the content.
  • Google + and Gmail: Google will provide account information to family members at their discretion.
  • Yahoo and Flickr: Yahoo owns Flickr and as a result both sites have a strict digital death policy, that once they receive a copy of your death certificate they will permanently delete all of your accounts and their contents so that no one but you can access them.
  • Hotmail: Hotmail will send a copy of all email messages which are stored on the account and the current contacts list to help your family notify your contacts of your death. Hotmail will then close the account on request.
  • eBay: Your family will need to fax a copy of your death certificate to eBay to close an account and all customer details are then deleted from the eBay database. eBay may also need to call to verify the account information.
  • PayPal: PayPal will need to view a death certificate before closing an account, and if there is money in the account a cheque will be issued in the name of the account holder.
  • Match.com: Match.com will block the account of a user who has died so that it is no longer visible on the site and your power of attorney will need to contact Match.com to retrieve account information.
  • eHarmony.com: Your eHarmony account will remain open until a family member or power of attorney contacts the site. Even then no third party will be allowed to access your account and eHarmony will close the account.

Maintaining a Digital Legacy with a Digital Will and Afterlife Funding

Digital Will
If you do decide that you want to maintain an online presence after you die or you just want to preserve everything you’ve put into creating your online profiles, you need to look at how that information is stored, and who will look after it when you die.

For example, to maintain your digital memory you will need to have stored your photo albums, your blog and your Facebook posts off line somewhere, and they will need to be formatted in a way which makes then accessible on the latest technology, and adaptable when that technology changes. However, more than that, you need to plan for the logistics of archiving or maintaining your online presence when you’re no longer around to do it yourself. Checking your emails and logging into your Facebook account are second nature and a habitual part of your day, but who do you want to be responsible for that after you die, and what sort of guidelines are you going to leave them to manage your digital estate in a way which reflects your wishes?

You may already have a will, in which you have named an executor or power of attorney. However, you will also need to list instructions and login details for your email, social media, online banking, online gaming and online dating profiles. Your will should also include who you want to access and manage the specific parts of your online identity as this will help you keep any online skeletons hidden.

Your family and friends will need the time and the opportunity to grieve after you die. Just as people would hold onto voice mail messages to hear the voice of their loved ones, or shopping lists to see their handwriting, you need to acknowledge that grieving is a way of remembering you and coping with your loss. You therefore need to make the process as easy and as clear as possible for those left behind so they really can grieve without being trapped in the policy of the sites which hold your digital identity.

If you own and run an online business you’re going to need to leave behind a lot more information and more detailed instructions about how to manage your online presence after you die. You can also put this information in your will, making sure you include the following:

  • Online company procedure: Make sure that you have separate business and personal online accounts as the person you name to take care of your personal social media profiles after you die, will probably be a different person to your business successor.
  • Keep an up to date list of online accounts: Make sure you list the website, the user name, the password and the reason for the account so anyone taking over can continue to focus its usage.
  • Business plans: Consider what you would like to happen with your online business, your blog and your company social media profiles after you die. Note down the directions you want the business to take and the plans you have for your online business and marketing.
  • Leave instructions: Consider whether the person you are leaving control of your online business to will know how to manage a blog and use all of the features of a Facebook page. If not, write out some simple instructions.
  • Leave a message: Part of leaving your online business to someone else to run after you die is letting people know about the changeover. Therefore, take the time to write a short note which your executor can post to your blog, Facebook, Twitter and your website. This relieves the stress on your executor of trying to work out what you would have wanted to say and leaves a truly thoughtful message for your client base and contacts.
  • Your business’ digital death policy: As you prepare for your own digital legacy, if your business collects customer data or profiles in any way, you should consider implementing a digital death policy of your own. You don’t want to simply delete a customer’s profile and data when they die, only to find that their family would have liked to keep that information as a memento.

Whoever you name in your digital will, make sure you ask them first. The person may not want to manage your online identity or they may not know how. Plus, there may be financial obligations on that person to keep certain aspects of your online presence present, and if sites are free now, who’s to say they will be free in the future? Therefore, you may also need to consider setting up a funding plan in your digital will too.

While you can leave instructions and plan for some eventualities, you will also have to consider the fact that you may not be able to live forever online. For example, what if a social media site goes out of business after you die or what if your profile is simply lost or deleted from the site? With 1.78 million deceased profiles expected to be on Facebook alone in 2011, what’s to say social media sites will have the capacity to maintain memorial pages when there are so many new users joining every day. Or what if the people you name to maintain your online presence die? You’ll need to make sure they have a digital will too. The best way you can leave a digital legacy is by leaving your details, photos and videos in more than one place, online and offline, and in a range of file formats.

Intellectual Property

Until 1953 in the US, the right to use a person’s image or identity – such as in the case of the identifying features of celebrity – was reserved by that person alone. The right of publicity however, allowed people to construct their identity as property which could be sold, at the time the case was made for American baseball players licensing their images for use on baseball cards.

However, in most parts of the world, the right of publicity ceases when you die, at which time a person’s identity can be available for public use; in the US the laws differ between the states. Therefore, even if you put it in your will that you didn’t want your identity to be used after you die, there is no legal basis to enforce these wishes.

State and federal laws also protect a person’s privacy, but this right also ends when they die. Therefore, even if you want to maintain your privacy after your death, there are limits to the length your digital executors can go to enforce this wish. A case in California saw pictures taken by a Highway Patrol Officer of a horrific car crash in which a person died, leaked onto the internet. The family of the deceased hired a lawyer to have the images removed and even though 2,500 copies of the images were taken down, the photos continue to reappear online faster than the lawyers can take them down. The family are therefore attempting to have the photos copyrighted so their lawyers can use takedown notices to request the photos are removed from websites.

Digital Legacy

Then there are the digital legacies which are left behind which can do so much more than help your family grieve and remember you, but which can also make a difference to the lives of many. Look at the story of Eva Markvoort, a young Canadian woman who died from Cystic Fibrosis in March 2010. Eva started blogging in 2006 to create a chronicle of her life, having suffered from Cystic Fibrosis since she was a young girl.

In 2007 Eva received a double lung transplant which gave her two years of her life back, where she could study, dance, spend time with her friends and family and even fall in love. Unfortunately in 2009 Eva’s body began rejecting her new lungs and she went back into hospital to continue the fight, and try to stay healthy enough, in preparation for another transplant. Through the pain, the medication, the medical emergencies and coming to terms with the very real possibility that another double lung transplant may not arrive in time, Eva continued blogging, writing poems, posting videos and uploading photos.

During that time Eva’s blog grew enormously in popularity and just over a month before her death she posted her final video http://65redroses.livejournal.com/134498.html telling her friends and followers ‘My life is ending’. While Eva didn’t leave a message for her family to post on her blog after her death, her parents have continued to post on her page to keep all of her fans up to date with the continuing battle to find a cure for CF. On the day Eva died her parents wrote simply ‘Our beautiful girl died this morning at 9.30. She is at peace.’ Her family registered over 1 million views on her blog and continued to receive letters, cards and messages from people around the world who had been touched by Eva’s strength, and who would never forget her legacy.

On 11 February 2011, a year after Eva posted her last video on her blog, a benefit concert was held which raised $37,000 for CF research. More than that Eva’s blog has been able to reach out and inspire people around the world to live their lives to the fullest, no matter what the obstacles, and her blog remains online in full as a reminder of that. Comments on Eva’s blog show just how important it is to make real connections in the world:

“You have truly touched my life since I started reading this blog last fall, and I have been praying for you and your wonderful family. You have made me see just how precious every moment, every tiny thing in life is, and how not to take any of it for granted. You have helped me become a better person with a better perspective on life.

I will be registering as an organ donor.”

Leaving a digital legacy is about so much more than how many Facebook friends you have and who is reading your emails. It is about taking the opportunity to look at what you are leaving behind, and the difference you can make in the world. Where our parents and grandparents left money, houses, businesses we have the opportunity to leave behind a part of ourselves, which could just inspire others, give them strength and leave behind something truly meaningful. As one of Eva’s poems says, you’ll never really die as long as you are loved:

“I can’t not be here

I can’t die

Because I am a part of them

And if my lungs stop working

I still won’t die

Because they love me

Because you love me”

Digital Undertakers

Digital Undertaker
In the real world the process of removing all of your worldly possessions falls not only to the undertaker who takes care of your body, your coffin, your headstone and your grave site, but also to family and friends who take care of your home, your belongings and your assets. However, if you decide to delete your digital legacy, you will want to shop around for a digital undertaker who can help you organise a digital will and select a digital executor to manage the aspects of your digital self you do want to keep alive.

Your digital legacy and your digital undertaker are likely to be separate from your standard will document as distributing your library of books is very different to deciding what to do with your Facebook account and blog page. Firstly look at the differences between your online and your physical assets and the issues which could arise for a digital undertaker:

  • Passwords and usernames: Some people may be able to guess your passwords from knowing you well, but a list of all the sites you are subscribed to and the username and password for each will make the process easier, and ensure your accounts aren’t blocked. In many cases, providers of social media and email sites won’t give anyone access to your accounts after you die unless they have your password.
  • Online self vs reality: Consider how much your friends and family know about what you do and who you are online. Who do you want sifting through your online profiles and who do you know who has the technical ability to navigate them?
  • Making the call: Typically the job of notifying friends and family about the death of a loved one was done in a series of dreaded phone calls but you can have your digital undertaker use your online profiles to notify your online communities about your death, just think about whether there’s a specific message you want them to send.
  • Gaming: Don’t forget your online gaming personalities and communities. For example you may have used Xbox Live, World of Warcraft or Second Life where you can have friends online you regularly interact with and meet, and you can often even own property which may need to be divided up.

You then need to think about who you could possibly ask to be in charge of your digital self after you die, and you should make sure this person has three things:

  1. Trust: You need to choose someone you trust completely to execute your digital estate after you die. You want someone who will respect your wishes and will follow them to the letter.
  2. Distance: While you need to be able to trust your digital executor you also want to choose someone with some distance. If you choose your spouse or partner for example, there is a good chance they will die at the same time you do, or very closely afterwards so they too would need a digital undertaker of their own to carry out both of your wishes. Plus, someone who is too close to you may find it difficult to delete files or profiles as you’ve asked.
  3. Capability: This means your digital undertaker must first have access to all of your login details. They should also be someone who is familiar and confident with the social media platforms you operate on and the person will need to outlive you to be capable of carrying out your wishes.

As the issue of digital death is explored further, services emerge to offer digital undertaking for you. One such company is called LifeEnsured https://www.lifeensured.com/ who offer the following services:

For your Facebook account, LifeEnsured can:

  • Delete your Facebook account.
  • Post a final status message you have left.
  • Disable your wall postings.
  • Change your bio to the past tense.
  • Transfer the ownership of your account.

Plus, the company can provide similar services for all of your online profiles for over 30 different services such as Twitter, PayPal, WordPress, Match.com and eHarmony. For your Flickr photo account LifeEnsured can have all of your images convert to Creative Commons so they enter the public domain after you die. The company can also send any final emails and files that you were about to upload or contact your personal web server to clear all data.

However, LifeEnsured is still in its infancy and is a company which is still using the $150,000 from an angel investor. Therefore, is it worth choosing an independent digital undertaker if you’re not sure they’ll be in business when you die? In the case of LifeEnsured, the company charges fees to its users and guarantees to meet the needs of their paying members.

Digital Waste

While there is no doubt that having a digital undertaker to take care of your online profiles is an important step into the digital age, very few people have taken this step. As a result there will still be thousands upon thousands of deceased online estates cluttering up cyberspace, in addition to the accounts of those people who don’t want to live forever in the digital world.

Therefore, because there is no uniform approach to dealing with online estates after your death, it is our responsibility to start cleaning up our act now. You don’t keep all of your old school reports or every single painting your child did in kindergarten, instead you sort through your belongings and keep the things which are the most important. Take the same approach to your digital life and look at just how many accounts you have online and all of the things you are subscribed to and start culling the things which aren’t relevant or important anymore.

For example do you ever read your university alumni email newsletter now that you are subscribed to more relevant industry news? Are you still receiving updates on blog posts for wedding websites even though you’re now married? And the big one – take a long hard look at your emails. Do you really need the 15 emails back and forth between you and your friends to find somewhere for dinner on Friday night? All those emails which are simply an ‘OK’ or ‘Thanks’ in response to an email you sent can go. And how many of the email angels, cute puppies or Christmas chain emails do you really need to keep?

A Modern Digital Memorial

The way a dead loved one is memorialised differs across ages and across cultures and as we move into a modern digital age memorials change again, but this time you’re losing a lot of the control. In the past, when you died you died and there was no way to speak with you again, see you or know what you thought. However, with all of that and more recorded in your online profiles, your family may decide that your online estate holds great emotional value, and they don’t want your online profiles euthanised.

So do you really have any right at all to decide what happens to you online after you die? Consider the case of a family whose son committed suicide. The family was shocked because the boy was young, excelled in school and was likely to be accepted into a prestigious college. Therefore, the family asked a tech savvy friend to see if he could find any information in the boy’s personal files as he left no note, and the family want some indication of where their son’s life went so wrong.

However, is it wrong for the family friend to look through the boy’s laptop, and try and crack his passwords for his email accounts and MySpace profiles? Does a grieving family looking for some comfort take precedence over basic assumptions of privacy? At the same time, we all leave a trail behind in our lives, both physically and digitally and in the past our letters, bank statements and possessions were automatically passed onto family members to sort through. For example, if your father passes away and you came across letters which showed he’d once had an affair there is no question about the family’s right to see those letters, regardless of the extra pain it would cause.

When it comes to Facebook and email accounts which are password protected we feel that even on the globally public space of the internet, we have afforded ourselves some measure of privacy. So what if your father’s letters were in a padlocked diary or a locked box – would you still feel you had the right to know what was inside after he died?

However, what if what you plan to leave behind isn’t as valuable as the digital memories your family discovers on their own after you’re gone. For example, school teacher Paul Flanagan knew he was dying of cancer and wanted to leave more than just photos for his young children to remember him by. So he set about writing letters, filming DVD messages, buying presents for the birthdays he wouldn’t be around for and filling a trunk of his favourite books, each with a note to his children about why he loved the book.

However, it was the document that his wife uncovered by accident on his laptop which was the greatest gift – it was a document with 28 dot points on how Paul had lived a happy life. His wife believes that this document, more than anything else he left behind, will show Paul’s children what he was really like, what he really believed and what really made him who he was.

Accessing and maintaining deceased online accounts isn’t always about families looking for answers, often it is just about remembering. In many cases you will have interactions and relationships with people you’ve never met in the real world, or at the very least haven’t seen for a long time. Therefore, how can you mourn for someone you’ve never met, yet feel so deeply affected by the sense of loss at their death? Some people may remember a lost digital friend by visiting their regular online haunts and posting memorials, in much the same way you may visit the home of a deceased friend, or a bar where the two of you hung out.

However, just because social media can be used to memorialise a dead loved one and notify their contacts of the death, it doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. In most cases people aren’t ready to receive a friend request on Facebook from someone they haven’t seen in years only to find that person has passed away, and their family has created the Facebook page to notify friends of the death. While the families think they are doing the right thing in notifying people in this way, if they are going through the deceased’s address book and contacting the people via Facebook, surely they also have the phone numbers of these people who would appreciate a warm call and some real answers, rather than a cold Facebook request and a an even colder shock.

In other cases family members know or guess the password of a deceased loved one and continue using their social media accounts as though the person was still alive. For example, the parents whose son was killed in a car accident knew his Facebook password and used his account to continue accepting and sending friend requests on behalf of their son. The boy’s parents also sent out news and updates about events he would have been involved in and while his parents obviously thought they were doing the right thing in remaining connected to their son’s friends and keeping his memory alive, some of his friends found it disturbing to be receiving these messages.

At the same time, everyone will want to remember you in their own way, and even if you do prepare a final status update such as this one:

“Here it is. I'm dead, and this is my last post to my blog. In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer, then my family and friends publish this prepared message I wrote—the first part of the process of turning this from an active website to an archive.”

by the now famous story of blogger Derek K Miller http://www.deathanddigitallegacy.com/2011/05/05/derek-k-millers-final-post/ who wrote a final blog post to be put up after he lost his battle with cancer, that won’t stop people memorialising you in their own way. This is evident in the numerous posts by other bloggers and writers who knew Miller, had met or interviewed him or who had simply been reading his blog, each recounting their own memories of him, and their own wishes for his family and friends.

Just as your friends, family and people whose lives you have touched with your own will want to remember you through your online profiles, do we really have any right to deny the world access to our online selves? Consider the historical value of your digital self, and how anthropologists and historians have always analysed communication methods to understand more about our where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The Future of Our Digital Selves

‘Where do you see yourself if five years?’ is a common job interview or first date question, and one which is fairly easy to extrapolate an answer for. However, how would you answer the question ‘Where do you see yourself 100 years from now?’

Some possibilities for the future of our digital selves are raised by Adam Ostrow in his presentation here http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/2011/08/digital-legacy-presented-at-ted-global-2011/. The question isn’t whether these seemingly science fiction ideas could become reality – there is little doubt that they can – but instead, do you want a machine generated version of yourself to continue to exist after you die?

That Can Be My Next Tweet

At That Can Be My Next Tweet http://yes.thatcan.be/my/next/tweet/ you can see what it would be like if your online presence was culminated into a computer program which could predict what you were going to say next. If you try out the system on your own account you may end up with some interesting phrases as the site claims to analyse the DNA of your past tweets, to come up with short sentences and updates which, even if they don’t make a lot of sense, still sound a lot like you.

Then there is Hunch http://hunch.com/ which lets you link to your Facebook or Twitter account to find out what you would say next. Hunch has an 83% accuracy rating in beta testing with around 30,000 users. However, the accuracy rating drops to around 75% for users outside of the US. When each person uses Hunch, they answer a series of questions about themselves, and the data from these questions is logged.

Currently over 400,000 Facebook users have answered 150 questions each to generate the Hunch ‘taste graph’ and as more and more people use the system, it will become smarter and more accurate due to the increasing amounts of data. Hunch can also predict what you’re thinking before asking you any questions where the system would be able to predict your answer to a certain question just by looking at your Facebook likes and your profile. With an 83% accuracy rating in 2011, in 100 years time your thoughts, likes and pastimes can live on after you’re gone.

Your Mind File

Mind File
Another option Ostrow mentioned in his presentation was the eventual ability to download your digital self to a robot or generate a hologram based on all of the information we contribute about ourselves online. Currently you can do this by creating a mind file, where you upload biographical pictures, videos and documents to a digital archive. The information is then preserved for future generations, and through geo mapping, timelines and tagging the information a comprehensive file about your life is stored, even down to the places you’ve been and the people you’ve met.

From there you can create a computer based avatar which can interact and respond in the way you would, having learnt your attitudes, values, mannerisms and beliefs from your mind file. You can then connect with others who have stored their mind files in the same way. One such system is Life Naut http://lifenaut.com/.

Currently all Life Naut mind file accounts are free, and with an account you have a secure space to store your life experiences, plus you can back up your information offsite. Storing your mind file you are able to participate in the long term computer science research, which will continue to explore the ways technology can extend life.

What Would Your Profile Say About You?

You don’t need to have uploaded all of your life experiences into an avatar or a computer program for your digital self to tell the story of your life. Journalists are already using Facebook and other social media to build a profile of the people in their articles who have died; even before social media a journalist would speak to your friends and family to find out more about you.

Therefore, consider what you’ve already left behind online to date. Unlike previous generations we have some measure of control over how we are perceived and remembered after we die. Rather than being remembered for a series of old love letters which reveal your infidelity, you are in control of what is out there online, and what is preserved. When you follow the tips above in creating a digital will and deciding how to leave a digital legacy, you maintain privacy where it is needed, you reveal and save what you want to maintain your digital self after your death and you choose what your profile says about you.

Digital Cultural Heritage

Then there is the question of how the information you are leaving behind will be used, and should be used. In the past documents, letters, photos and artefacts were preserved and studied from the past, in order to learn more about our ancestors and in turn ourselves. However, with so much information being stored digitally about every single one of us, were we really meant to live forever, and in such vivid detail?

Digital Archaeology

Sociologists, archaeologists and anthropologists will have an interest in the digital data we are all leaving behind online, and not just to find out who’s dating whom and which of your friends had the best wedding dress. For those who study human behaviour and human history, day to day life and interactions are often just as revealing as those moments which are a turning point in each generation.

As a result, archaeologists of the future would appear to have a plethora of choice when it comes to examining what we ate for lunch, what we’re thinking while we watch TV and what we ‘Like’. However, just because all of that information is there now, permeating every facet of our lives, that doesn’t mean our rich and detailed digital history will always be available for study.

Digital records should be treated like an oral tradition, rather than traditional historical artefacts, recognising their fleeting and fragile nature; unless they are recorded. Digital records should be copied regularly to ensure they don’t disappear forever, and our generation is remembered only as a Dark Age with very little data. As much effort should be put into preserving our digital records, as we put into creating them.

In this way we can turn the job of a historian upside down in the future. Where historians have typically only had small scraps of information about the past which they had to extrapolate and guess at to find the truth, digital archaeology will mean having more information than they’ll know what to do with. After all, why would the experience of those studying our lives be any different to our own experiences with the wealth of digital information – all of the emails we’ve archived, the files we’ve saved and the photos we’ve take, all stored without rhyme or reason, often not knowing what we have.

What Will Internet Archaeologists Look For?

Long before our favourite file types become obsolete, digital archaeologists will be battling with determining the origin and authenticity of our data. Our digital data is often duplicated, edited, annotated and modified or we email ourselves documents or post photos online. While the changes this makes to the files is usually minor to our eyes, the file has changed and more data has been created.

To help them sort through this mountain of information, digital archaeologists will track how information has spread using hashing. This mathematical technique expresses a large piece of data as a smaller number, known as a hash value so files are easier to compare. However, when a file changes, even just slightly like adjusting the resolution, the hash value is now completely different from the original file, and so the relationship between information can be hard to measure.

Archaeologists will also be looking at all of the text left behind online after we die, such as comments, status updates and blog posts. However, much of this information is left anonymously, or under an alias, and so those studying our writing will have to use write prints. Write prints look at the vocabulary, the length of sentences, the words and punctuation patterns and common grammatical errors commonly used by each writer to make connections between writing all over the internet. At the same time, researchers at the National Institute for Computing and Automation Research in Grenoble, France have designed a system which can also link writers by the characters which make up their usernames.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aaron Zinman went even further and developed Defuse, which analyses the semantics of online writing. Defuse can link the language writers use and how closely they conform to community norms, which could become the digital equivalent of our ability to form a first impression from a person just by meeting them face to face.

Before creating Defuse, Zinman worked on the Persona http://personas.media.mit.edu/ project which aims to show how the web sees you, simply from your name. Personas searches for meaningful statements about you and gathers data on every aspect of your life. While you don’t get to view any of the data, you do get to see the searching process, which is sort of like looking into the workings of a search engine – which we usually never get to see. Personas will create profiles of each person with your name, so while you may be a writer, there may be someone else with your name who is a scientist, and you can see how well the internet really knows you.

If you do look at systems like Persona, you will realise just how flawed our online identities can be. A search for yourself on the internet only reveals a small part of who you are, but as online communities grow in popularity, there aren’t going to be a lot of non-digital artefacts left behind, so will archaeologists of the future really be getting a better picture of who we are because of the volume of our online profiles? Is who we are online really who we are in life?

Pandora Archive

Under a contract with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the National Library of Australia developed Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage in 2003. The contract and the guidelines recognise the ongoing and emerging challenges of preserving our digital heritage. Challenges such as the fragility of the media used to store our digital selves, and the fact that the technology we use to access and create these profiles is so quickly outdated when new technology is released. As a result, digital heritages are at risk of being lost, although the National Library has been collecting historic online publications relating to Australia and Australians since 1996 as part of the Pandora Archive.

Materials in the Pandora Archive include websites and information which documents the cultural, social and political lives and activities of the Australian community. Due to the volume of the data and the complexity of the task, the National Library is now working in collaboration with state and territory libraries and other cultural heritage agencies.

As part of the Copyright Act 1968, the National Library requires publishers to include one copy of each edition of a work in the library. Most states around Australia also have this requirement, but has not yet been extended to include copies of electronic publications.

Forgetting Gracefully

None of us is ever meant to live forever, and perhaps there is a reason why our memories fade and our recollections become blurry. Think back to when you started school, or got your first job – you don’t remember every single thing about every single day, but you remember the big things. You remember the good and the bad, but even the pain of the most embarrassing, upsetting or sad times becomes dulled around the edges with time, after all, how else would we ever get over these things and move on with our lives?

So is it really necessary that our digital selves are preserved just as they are today, to be kept long after we’re dead? Do you want to be remembered in the drunken photo at your 21st birthday, or would you rather remember the beautiful speeches your family and friends made? Do you want to remember the year you got divorced if it was the same year that your sister had her first baby? Just as old letters fade and old photos are moved from the mantelpiece to a box under the bed, perhaps our digital selves should be allowed to grow old gradually too.

Building in a mechanism to allow us to digitally forget gracefully was the suggestion of Mayer-Schönberger in his book ‘Delete’. Mayer-Schönberger proposed files that came with expiry dates so they would simply vanish after a certain amount of time, or data which would ‘digitally rust’ unless we made a conscious effort to preserve it. Several companies are taking up these ideas, a German business called X-Pire http://www.x-pire.de/index.php?id=6&L=2 which allows you to add an expiry date to images you’ve uploaded to sites like Facebook.

This would remove the issue of the internet being filled with more data from the dead than from the living, and means that if your family and friends want to memorialise you online they will take care of your files to keep the rust off. Plus, it doesn’t just have to be your family who preserves your digital data, as the nature of the internet has shown, when there is something truly exceptional to see, it is saved and shared, so ideally the best online contributions will be kept alive through user interest.

While there are a range of people, companies and technologies out there who are trying to help us understand and manage what will happen to our digital selves when we die, the situation is still so new that much more thought and planning will be required from organisations and individuals around the world to ensure we leave behind something valuable – valuable to ourselves, valuable to our family and friends and valuable in showcasing our era in history.

However, just because the process of digital death is so unfamiliar, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about what you want to happen to your online self when you die. Start by looking at what would be left behind if you died tomorrow, and you will start to get a picture of the enormity of situation facing technologists around the world. Consider how the world would see you through your digital profiles, and look at what sort of digital legacy you want to leave behind to turn all of those blog posts and status updates into something truly meaningful. There are a range of services and programs which can help you start collating your login details and backing up your files.

Most of all you should look on this as an opportunity unlike any previous generations have had – the opportunity to really ask where you see yourself in 100 years, and have options such as AI, holograms and mind files open to you.

Take a look at this article from Life Insurance Finder for more information on the fascinating world Digital Death
 

References

  1. Cha, A.E. (3 February 2005), After Death, a Struggle for Their Digital Memories, Washington Post.[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58836-2005Feb2.html
  2. Goldsborough, J. (16 May 2011), Why you, your company need to think about digital death, Just in Case You Were Wondering[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://justincaseyouwerewondering.com/2011/05/16/why-you-and-your-company-need-to-think-about-digital-death/
  3. Hartley, M. (18 May 2010), Why everyone needs to appoint a digital executor before they die, Financial Post[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://business.financialpost.com/2010/05/18/fp-tech-desk-mesh2010-why-everyone-needs-to-appoint-a-digital-executor-before-they-die/
  4. Ostrow, A. (August 2011) After your final status update, TED[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://www.ted.com/talks/adam_ostrow_after_your_final_status_update.html
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  6. Arrington, M. (11 September 2010) You Are So Predictomatic: Play The Hunch Facebook Predictor Game, Techcrunch[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/11/you-are-so-predictomatic-play-the-hunch-facebook-predictor-game/
  7. Lane, J. (8 April 2011) Death and Social Media, Wired Journalists[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://wiredjournalists.com/profiles/blogs/death-and-social-media
  8. Buchanan, M. (26 July 2011) Social networks: The great tipping point test, New Scientist[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727701.100-social-networks-the-great-tipping-point-test.html
  9. Paul-Choudhury, P. (3 May 2011) Digital Legacy: Archaeology of the Future, New Scientist[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20395-digital-legacy-archaeology-of-the-future.html
  10. National Library of Australia (March 2003) Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage, UNESCOI[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001300/130071e.pdf
  11. Dudai, Y. (24 October 2009) Memory and forgetting in the digital age, New Scientist[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011 [from] http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20427311.700-memory-and-forgetting-in-the-digital-age.html
  12. Lamm, J. (30 March 2011), Right of Publicity and Right of Privacy After Death, Digital Passing[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011, [from] http://www.digitalpassing.com/2011/03/30/right-publicity-right-privacy-after-death/
  13. Farrar, L (10 July 2009) Greening the Internet : How Much CO2 Does This Article Produce[Retrieved] 6 Nov. 2011, [from] http://articles.cnn.com/2009-07-10/tech/green.internet.CO2_1_greenhouse-gas-emissions-carbon-footprint?_s=PM:TECH
  14. Singer, M (18 January 2011) 408,000 U.S. Facebook Users Will Die in 2011[Retrieved] 11 Nov. 2011, [from] http://www.allfacebook.com/report-408000-u-s-facebook-users-will-die-in-2011-2011-01
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