Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

No Phones, Please, This Is a Communications Class

Last semester I tried to create a college classroom that was a technological desert. I wanted the space to be a respite from the demands and distractions of smartphones, tablets, and computers.

So I banned the use of technology — because asking students to be professional digital citizens had not worked.

Simply requesting that students put away their phones was an exercise in futility. Adding a line in the syllabus that there would be grade penalties for unprofessional use of technology brought about no change in their habits of swiping and clicking.

They meant no disrespect. Technology pulled at them — and pulls at us — creating a sense of urgency that few can ignore.

I get it. This is not a college-student problem (I’ve been to faculty meetings). It’s a human problem. But I’m a college instructor, and so classrooms have become my sites of technological resistance and rebellion. It was time for me to usher in an era of digital death, at least for three 50-minute stretches a week.

After four years of teaching, I could not bear to look at one more student smiling at his or her crotch — the universally preferred location to keep one’s phone for “surreptitious” texting. (Note to students: If you’re smiling in that direction, your attempts at stealth are going to get noticed.)

I could not stand to hear one more refrain of frenzied keyboard tapping. When someone pounds with that much urgency, I can assure you he isn’t transcribing what I’m saying.

But as each semester came and went, I didn’t have the courage to enact a flat-out ban on technology use. It seemed antiquarian, technophobic, selfish, dictatorial. Besides, as a college instructor, wasn’t I supposed to help students maneuver through distractions without exiling problem devices? Wasn’t college supposed to prepare students for the real world and its distractions?

But then I read the manifesto of Clay Shirky, a New York University professor, on why he was asking his students to put away their connected devices. And I thought, why not? After all, a college classroom is not the real world. At its best, it’s a cocoon that allows its residents to try out new ideas, push boundaries, and stretch into a new sense of self. How can we let the latest cat video disrupt that?

What eventually persuaded me was Professor Shirky’s assertion that these devices are designed to be distracting — to grab, get, and keep our attention on them and away from everything else. If it’s a competition between me and an iPhone, I don’t stand a chance. And, more important, students don’t stand a chance to engage and participate when their phones lure them into the labyrinth of the digital world.

So I followed in Shirky’s footsteps and those of others: Henceforth, in my classroom, all phones, computers, and tablets had to remain zipped in backpacks. I was surprised when students accepted this new rule. Maybe they welcomed a break from the devices that pull them every which way. But I can’t report that all students obeyed the rule at all times. Even I found myself sneaking in glances at my phone to see if my daughter’s day-care provider had called. But that was OK, because violations were rare and did not compromise my goal of creating an environment in which students are not shackled to their devices.

This new normal meant students would daydream when they finished an assignment early. I had almost forgotten what it was like to gaze upon a group of people whose minds were allowed to wander freely, pencils tapping against desks. Imagine that! During class downtime, students opened books, played with Silly Putty, and just plain stared straight ahead.

They were allowed to be bored, and I was thrilled. Who knows what organic, stream-of-conscious highway their neurons were traveling down? I hope it was as beautiful as it looked.

At the end of the semester, I asked students how the ban worked for them. Their answer was practical: The early-morning hour made the ban easier, since they didn’t expect any urgent texts when many friends were still tucked in bed. Timing is everything, I suppose.

I’ve come to realize that the only way forward is to extract the problem from its root, by physically disconnecting the device from the hand. The devices fared fine for 50 minutes in a backpack. Afternoon classes, as students emerge into the prime of their digital day, might prove to be a greater challenge, but I think it’s one worth tackling for the calm that descends on a tech-free class.

For me it was lovely to coexist in a space a few times each week where we relied on earlier technological forms: those of the mind. Pings be damned.

What happens to my late husband’s digital life now he’s gone

What happens to my late husband’s digital life now he’s gone

nyctwigg: Ah, there you are; a Skype username you created while working in New York for a month. And here I am, trying to call someone yet absent-mindedly pulling up your profile. In the tiny square picture icon, you are there in your blue T-shirt, leaning over the table and smiling at the camera. Next to your name it says, “Hear me now”.

That drove me mad; you’d sit there and repeat, “Hear me now? Hear me now?” A deliberately annoying mantra, because you knew I could hear you perfectly well. I would hang up and redial to a laughing you and we’d catch up, but today I sit and stare, wishing I could conjure up that annoying voice again. Even just once.

I press the little video camera icon to see if I can get through. But it doesn’t even give me the satisfaction of ringing. Instead the screen says “ended” and the call hangs itself up. Guess that’s fair. That’s when I realise it says “offline”. “nyctwigg offline”. Also fair. I should delete your account … and your phone number, email address and all sorts of other aspects of your online life. I sit and wonder if other people you were connected to have deleted your profile. And I stare out the window wondering if I should try to call you again.

My husband, Iain, and I met at school when we were 17, dated in the sixth form, went our separate ways at university, then got back together and married in a flurry of excitement in 2008. Iain worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so we lived, worked and adventured together for seven years in Delhi and Geneva. In October 2013, Iain was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and on 7 December 2014, he died in our bed at home. On that morning, my husband, our hoped for family and my future roadmap of work and travel for the next 40 years, all vanished in one shuddering breath. We were both 33.

Six months along this single-track pathway, I’m repeatedly aware I have to rebuild and reshape my life – a life I can’t remember distinct from Iain. If your partner dies, a lot of admin also comes your way. And, these days, people die a digital death alongside their physical one, which creates a whole new world of admin that didn’t pass the radar of grieving widows 50 years ago. Those 20th-century widows would have had a box of love letters and a few hard copy photos; I have Facebook messages, professional videos on YouTube, personal videos on my iPhone, email histories, recorded Skype chats, WhatsApp conversations, text messages and digital photos – photos galore. And all this from a marriage with someone who never really liked spending time online. He set out his stall at 18 announcing that he wouldn’t be getting a mobile phone because they “seem pretty annoying, I doubt they’ll catch on”.

I’ve found at least one blog that tries to make sense of it all. The Digital Beyond, which offers a “go-to source for archival, cultural, legal and technical insights, to help you predict and plan for the future of your online content”. Along with “scatter tubes” – tubes with a perforated lid for transporting and scattering ashes – and bespoke jewellery made from ashes, it’s another blossoming industry I never knew existed.

The blog lists 54 online companies that deal specifically with aspects of dying or, more commonly, the legacy of memories online. I’m slightly spooked by the number of websites that help you send posthumous messages to your friends and relatives. ToLovedOnes, for example, will send letters after your death, calculating the dates they are posted “with 95% accuracy from public records”. Which just leaves me worrying about the 5% of people who receive the letters when their relative is still alive.

Knotify.me, meanwhile, is a free app that answers the question you never knew you had; “What happens to all my online accounts if I get amnesia, Alzheimer’s or if I leave this world?” It helps you set future notifications for your family or yourself, so “nothing of your digital life will be wasted”. Remembered Voices lets you record your voice and play it back to people after you’ve died, Cirrus Legacy stores digital assets in a single place online, so your executor can access them easily. That would have been helpful, in fact. Terry Pratchett was in the know – his recent death was announced in a series of tweets from his own account.

Just as we’re playing catch up with technology, the technology developers themselves are in the same position. Dying, understandably, didn’t feature highly in Facebook’s early risk registers. Which might be why it was in trouble recently for locking a grieving mother out of her teenage daughter’s Facebook account, despite having her daughter’s permission to use it.

When someone dies, Facebook tends to “memorialise” their account – freeze them so they can be viewed, but providing no access to past messages. I read that and panicked: I didn’t want that to happen, so grabbed my laptop and logged in urgently as Iain. Once in though, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do – it didn’t feel right reading personal messages to and from other people. They weren’t for me. If he’d left a box of letters, would I have read those? People store important letters, but online messages are kept just because we don’t press delete. Should I read his emails? I didn’t. But I read and reread our text message conversations, which lifted me up so high it felt like we were actually chatting. Then when I got to the end and there were no more, it was a bad, long fall from there. So I decided memorialising was OK.

Facebook also offended a fair number of bereaved people with its Year in Review clips, in which photographs that attracted the most comments were automatically selected to reappear on your timeline under the words “Here’s what your year looked like”. The problem was that for some, these were pictures of dead loved ones. And, however comforting photos and associated memories can be, out of the blue and at the wrong moment on your computer screen they can cause havoc if you are grieving.

The bereaved: an oversensitive minority population, you may think, but the numbers involved are bigger than you may realise. Based on Facebook’s growth rate, and the age breakdown of its users over time, probably 10 to 20 million people who created Facebook profiles have since died. Even if Facebook closed registration tomorrow, the number of deaths per year will continue to grow for decades, as the 2000-2020 school generations grow old. And the peak? Nasa physicist turned full-time cartoonist Randall Munroe estimates that if Facebook falls out of favour with young generations, as many social media sites do, the point at which there will be more users who have died than are living is around 2060. And if Facebook continues to thrive, that’s more like 2130.

Caroline and Iain in 1999, when they were still at school.
Caroline and Iain in 1999, when they were still at school.

In the hours and immediate few days after Iain died, I turned to the memorial website built overnight by a kind colleague to celebrate my man’s life. A bewildered and floundering group of Iain’s closest friends and family immersed ourselves in a world of photos and memories and words and purpose. Three days later, all within half an hour, the website went live, an email to the worldwide Foreign and Commonwealth Office workforce went out and I put a “global announcement” on Facebook. “Informing friends of the deceased”, 21st-century style. I changed my profile to black, shut my laptop and left the house; the internet did its thing – with speed, breadth and a rush of wildfire.

I hadn’t anticipated the outpouring of love from around the world. Within minutes there were messages from Japan, Pakistan, Chile … the inhabitants of our interconnected world, suddenly spinning inwards to be connected by shock and grief, then spinning out again to their own physical pockets around the world.

Today, one of the things I cherish most is an eight-second video of Iain telling me he loves me. There’s something about seeing him as if in real life and hearing his voice, that is just quite incredible. The only downside is that it’s far too short. And it’s all I’m going to get now. I wish I had more videos – they are by far the hardest thing to look at right now, but I sense that one day they will be some of the most precious things I have.

Otherwise a huge comfort and unity online has come from a network for younger people whose partners have died – Way (Widowed and Young). In the past month, I’ve got to know some of the 1,500 people in that group by seeing their biggest fears, their “smallest” achievements, their practical worries and their rallying strength posted online in a closed group. A sub-set of our society, normal people living normal lives that suddenly know tragedy and are thrust together in their confusion and loneliness and upset.

I don’t use the rest of Facebook so much now – I posted a positive few things early on and hadn’t expected so many instantaneous likes and messages saying I was “amazing”. It was too surreal to be told that when you’re barely able to hold a conversation in real life, and it made me feel strange. I’m certainly not going to start covering Facebook with the reality of the new world I have found myself living in since Iain’s death – people don’t go there to see the truth if it’s not pretty.

So, after I put my phone aside each evening and disconnect myself from my online communities, the moment just after my head hits the pillow is when the reality of my sadness becomes so stark. The moment I go from being exhausted to somehow feeling wide awake, when I feel so, so solo. I look over at Iain’s side of the bed and just his picture grins back at me. I poke my toe over the cold sheet and I wonder how it can be that he was right there, and now he’s not. I think about friends in their homes, with their favourite people breathing quietly beside them. I think of people listening out for babies in other rooms. For their children stirring. I want to say, “Imagine none of those people are in your house now, imagine that silence. And imagine it’s for always.” That’s how alone it feels.

As I lie there I wonder, have I fallen off the end of the world? I’ve discovered that when you cry while you’re lying on your back, your tears slide into your ears, which fill up and feel strange. I shake my head. And at some point I fall asleep. And then I wake up too early and feel the same.

As I take the commuter train, I look at everyone on their smartphones. I imagine there are others also scrolling through pictures of their families, just as I am with photos of Iain. I see a message from a lady, a new friend, whose husband also died of a brain tumour a few days before Iain – we’ve never met but have shared such a similarly traumatic story that we’re linked to each other now. As I go to reply, I’m aware that we’d never have connected if this had been 1915, not 2015.

Caroline Twigg has written a book to help bereaved children. Find out more at http://kck.st/1GL3UzI where she is raising money to illustrate and publish it

Estate Planning for the Digital Life

Estate Planning for the Digital Life

While individuals will eventually pass on, the internet is forever. Online accounts from games, apps and social media are becoming increasingly valuable. In an age of expanding online presence, estate planners and administrators should take into account the digital life of the client or the decedent, even if online accounts may not always trigger ownership or property issues.

Confronted with the growing problem of how to treat the deaths of account holders, Facebook recently put into place a mechanism by which an account holder may designate a “legacy contact” to administer her or his Facebook account after the account holder’s death. This digital personal representative can then update the profile, write a post on the profile to share a message or information, and change the profile picture and cover photo of the deceased user. Facebook also allows users to give advance directives as to how the account does or does not live on after death. Twitter and LinkedIn have yet to create such simple mechanisms for planning for the digital estate, but account holders should include with relevant estate planning documents the necessary credentials to carry out actions concerning these and other accounts after death. In many instances, these accounts require substantial documentation to end or modify the accounts, with potentially undesirable results.

Digital life also creates tricky problems for finding financial assets, as online accounts can contain assets that clearly fall within the bounds of an estate. For instance, a relatively new app called “Acorns” rounds up purchases from an account holder’s checking and credit accounts to the nearest dollar and deposits those funds in an investment account. These accounts can be tricky to discover. The only proof of the existence of an Acorns account may be in the confirmation email sent to the account holder or the app itself. The estate’s personal representative would then have no knowledge of the existence of the account without first checking the decedent’s smartphone. Ongoing eBay auctions may commit the estate to sell certain assets, while PayPal may hold a balance to liquidate. Other types of accounts, such as World of WarCraft accounts or property held in virtual worlds such as Second Life, may have real market value that should be included in the estate. World of WarCraft and Second Life are analogous to video games, except the protagonist is unique to the user and can learn skills, create products, work jobs or even own property in a virtual setting. These two online platforms allow users to interact with players from around the world and build value in their characters or properties that holds true dollar value for the estate. For instance, one World of Warcraft player in 2007 sold a valuable character for roughly $9,500.

Estate planning and administration should take the testator’s digital life into account for planning purposes. As more individuals spend their time online, the assets that they create there will have to find a secure place within a plan for the future or risk floating in the internet ether for a digital eternity. Does your estate plan adequately cover your online assets? Will your family be able to adequately memorialize you in the digital realm?

'Digital Estate' Is Easy Way to Take on Finances After Family Death

‘Digital Estate’ Is Easy Way to Take on Finances After Family Death

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Elderly Americans and their adult children just aren’t on the same page on estate planning issues, and that can lead to a big legal and financial mess if an older family member passes away.

According to Fidelity Investments2014 Intra-Family Generational Finance Study, a clear majority of U.S. families have a hard time discussing estate planning issues, which can cause both parties to feel stressed over family money matters in the future.

Fidelity says:

  • “64% of parents and children disagree about the right timing for these conversations to occur. Parents would prefer to wait until after retirement, while their adult children want these conversations to happen well before their parents retire or experience health issues.”

Read More: 5 Totally Obvious Things to Do to Stop Worrying About Retirement

  • “The majority (75%) of adult children and their parents agree it is important to have frank conversations about wills and estate planning, elder care and covering retirement expenses — however, these conversations often lack depth.”

One big step in fixing the disconnect is to have parents and children agreeing on a digital estate — a mechanism in which both parties have access to passwords for the elderly parent’s financial accounts, among other key checklist items.

New Year’s is a good time to have that conversation, as it can set the tone for better estate planning discussions for the year, says David Walters, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant at Portland, Ore.-based Palisades Hudson. You don’t want disaster to strike if the head of the household passes away unexpectedly and you don’t have the user names and passwords needed to access the deceased’s financial account, he says.