There’s a very interesting New York Times Magazine story by Rob Walker titled “Cyberspace When You’re Dead” that is now online. It’s got plenty of food for thought about pre-planning and communications to family and friends – Facebook and otherwise.
Here are the first few paragraphs:
Suppose that just after you finish reading this article, you keel over, dead. Perhaps you’re ready for such an eventuality, in that you have prepared a will or made some sort of arrangement for the fate of the worldly goods you leave behind: financial assets, personal effects, belongings likely to have sentimental value to others and artifacts of your life like photographs, journals, letters. Even if you haven’t made such arrangements, all of this will get sorted one way or another, maybe in line with what you would have wanted, and maybe not.
But many of us, in these worst of circumstances, would also leave behind things that exist outside of those familiar categories. Suppose you blogged or tweeted about this article, or dashed off a Facebook status update, or uploaded a few snapshots from your iPhone to Flickr, and then logged off this mortal coil. It’s now taken for granted that the things we do online are reflections of who we are or announcements of who we wish to be. So what happens to this version of you that you’ve built with bits? Who will have access to which parts of it, and for how long?
Not many people have given serious thought to these questions. Maybe that’s partly because what we do online still feels somehow novel and ephemeral, although it really shouldn’t anymore. Or maybe it’s because pondering mortality is simply a downer. (Only about a third of Americans even have a will.) By and large, the major companies that enable our Web-articulated selves have vague policies about the fate of our digital afterlives, or no policies at all. Estate law has only begun to consider the topic. Leading thinkers on technology and culture are understandably far more focused on exciting potential futures, not on the most grim of inevitabilities.
Nevertheless: people die. For most of us, the fate of tweets and status updates and the like may seem trivial (who cares — I’ll be dead!). But increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders.
The article goes on to explore the story of Mac Tonnies, an active online guy who died at the age of 34, and what happened to his virtual friendships, his digital afterlife, and his actual possessions. It looks at businesses springing up to manage the digital and online affairs of those who die. And it examines the whole idea of who controls your online “stuff” after you’re gone and how or if you want to preserve a record of your life for all to see.
If nothing else, this story is a vital reminder to write down passwords for our loved ones to be able to access and deal with accounts after we’re gone. Read the whole story here.