This week saw the passing of one of our VA colleagues and it got me thinking… what do you do with your digital footprint once you’ve passed?
We hear a lot in business about risk management, succession planning,
ensuring your partner has access to your passwords, insurance policies and so on. Some businesses even write a plan for what to do in the event of illness or accident. But how many of those actually include information about what to do with your online presence – your website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest – the list is endless!
It seems like I wasn’t the only one thinking about this. Recently the Courier Mail/Sunday Mail ran an article about just this topic.
Your social media accounts store years of memories, pictures, data and activities. So it seems that now, lawyers are advising people to think about including a clause in their Will about what should be done with social media accounts on their demise.
Facebook’s policy is that a profile can be deleted at the request of an immediate family member or memorialised so that others can post tributes to them on the Wall. You can see more info about this at the Facebook Blog. Similarly, immediate family members or a person authorised to act on behalf of the user’s Estate can deactivate the person’s Twitter account.
Make a list of all your online accounts and notify your Executor or partner of those. You might keep this list (together with access passwords) with your Will at your lawyer’s office. At the very least let your partner know where they can find them. They’ll have enough to deal with in the event of your death without having to try and remember every online space you have inhabited during your life.
The same applies to your website – include information about who is hosting the site, contact details; the domain name registry; domain expiry information etc so that your family can get in touch with the right people with the least amount of fuss.
If you haven’t thought about it before, now might be the time – before something happens or you fall ill. It’s something none of us like to think about but, as the saying goes, none of us are getting out of this alive, so making things as easy as possible for those left behind should be your focus.
Do you have any ideas for helping your family sort out your digital legacy? Share them below!
While there have been some legislative and judicial developments in some jurisdictions (see Nebraska’s Bill 783 for an example), it has largely been left to private industry to resolve the problems created when a person passes away leaving a large digital footprint behind.
Fortunately, Google has stepped up to the plate and introduced a new policy to resolve this issue with respect to its services. Google’s new Inactive Account Manager feature takes leaps forward towards resolving digital legacy issues.
Called a “digital will” by some media sources including the Toronto Star, the Inactive Account Manager allows users to manage what happens to their Google-related digital assets on death, or on prolonged account inactivity. Users may set a period of time of inactivity (three, six, nine, or twelve months), after which Google will delete their data. Before anything is deleted, Google will notify you by email or by text message to your cell phone. If users would prefer that their data be preserved, there is an option to have some or all of it sent to trusted contacts. The services to which the service applies include +1s, Blogger, Contacts and Circles, Drive, Gmail, Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams, Picasa Web Albums, Google Voice, and Youtube.
This service is a clever and easy to use way to manage digital assets. It does raise a number of questions, however. How does this policy interact with legislation and case law about digital assets in jurisdictions that have these policies? Will Facebook, or other online services follow suit and prepare similar policies? Does an estate trustee under a will in Ontario have the authority (or the responsibility) to collect your digital assets from the person named on your Inactive Account Manager?
Perhaps the answers to these questions will become clear with time. In the interim, it appears that we are left with a patchwork of policies created by different online service providers with different intentions and different philosophies. Consider, for example, _LIVESON, a service that analyzes a user’s Twitter habits and generates automated tweets for him or her after death. Control is placed in the hands of an “executor” who manages your _LIVESON “will”. Although somewhat eerie, this is an interesting way to ensure that a person’s online presence not only persists after death, but continues to develop and grow.
If you are a Google user, it may be worth checking out the Inactive Account Manager and configuring your settings. The photos, blogs, friends and videos left behind on a user’s death may mean a lot to grieving loved ones.
When updating an estate plan, digital assets are an important aspect to consider. Lawyers should be cognizant of the issues surrounding digital legacies, and should discuss them with their clients. People planning their wills should think about the intangibles they leave behind as well. And if you aren’t sure where to find this information, try Google.
Coursera has been offering machine learning classes to anyone – usually in batches of 80000 students. The technology behind it is simple: you look at a lot of information, and you extract patterns. For example, you look at the weather parameters today and you can guess, statistically, what is going to be the weather tomorrow. You analyse a list of groceries and you can determine whether or not the buyer is pregnant. This already happened.
But groceries list is only a drop in the sea of the digital content we create. We have your emails, tweets, posts on social networks. In a sense, it is us. Given a stimulation, how do we react? What are our thinking models? It’s something that can be modelized.
And it’s something that is being done by After Life Technology, who is taking of our openly accessible publications, and uses it to guess our behaviour. In a sense, they are reanimating us, and they can do so because of the footprint, the legacy that we have left behind.
Let’s go a step further the usual thinking. a silicon brain can access your personality, so why shouldn’t it be able to manage your assets? Take any writer: the stream of revenues given to him by royalties normally can go to his/her heirs. What about a portion to be used to buy electricity and equipment for a bot who can still use the huge amount of text, conferences, interviews, drafts, emails, that he sent to publish new content and interact with admirers?
The boundaries between life, death and online presence are thinning ..
Meet Courtney.* She represents the average family caregiver: 34 years old, a full-time nurse, mother to a pre-teen daughter, with a half-brother who lives several states away and a younger brother in the military. Like many Americans, she lives on-line, utilizing at least 25 password-protected sites on different computers and a smart phone, where she stores and shares the vulnerable, mundane, and whimsical in her life while connecting to family and friends. Before her mother’s illness, she had thought little of her own digital assets, let alone those of anyone else. When she joined the one-third of the US population who provides care for an ill, disabled, or aged person — two thirds of whom are women, shepherding her terminally ill mother’s online presence in life and after her death became very important. We use Courtney’s story to give us a glimpse into the questions, tasks, unexpected dilemmas, and benefits that await us in caring and grieving in the digital age.
The news that her 58-year-old mother faced terminal cancer shocked Courtney and propelled her into caregiving action. Drawing on her nursing background and love of organization, Courtney created spreadsheets to track her mother’s medications and the signs and symptoms of her disease. She and her mother searched disease progression and treatment options on-line, making lists of questions for her doctors and finding support groups. Courtney also began a private blog, tracing her mother’s stays in the hospital, and she treasures pictures stored on her phone of her mother’s last Halloween, hospitalized but still trick-or-treating at the nurses’ station.
As her mother’s condition declined, Courtney realized that her own comfort level with sharing her personal story through digital media and her mother’s were different, and her mother’s wishes took precedent over her own. For example, she considered using a caregiving site likeCaringBridge to help her mobilize support, but her mother’s wishes for a high level of privacy during her illness meant private e-mail messages and texting were best. Before her mother’s illness, Courtney shared her life’s ups and downs regularly on Facebook and Twitter, but now she tried to follow general digital etiquette advice as best she could, speaking only from her perspective as a daughter, refraining from telling her mother’s story without her permission. Most of the time, though, she found herself too exhausted to share anything and used Facebook to unwind, living vicariously through the pictures, status updates, and tweets of her friends.
Courtney soon realized that she did not know what digital accounts her mother had, let alone what she would want done with them in the future. On one of her mother’s stronger days, they sat down to begin sorting through her digital life together. Clicking through her mother’s Shutterfly, Pinterest, ITunes and Facebook accounts became an opportunity for reminiscing. Because most digital accounts are non-transferrable, they decided what material needed to be saved to her computer’s hard drive, which accounts to close, and which accounts to leave active, like her Facebook page which she still enjoyed using to keep up on her distant grandkids and childhood friends.
Because of her mother’s wishes for privacy, Courtney was surprised when her phone began buzzing non-stop soon after her mother died:
It was weird, because I’d only told a few people that she was dying. I learned that a family friend had been posting detailed updates about my mother’s last moments, and never checked with us about whether we wanted privacy and time. I was very hurt by that. I just felt like the world needed to stop.
Upset that her brothers might learn of their mom’s death on Facebook and not from their sister, she called them immediately. For several days, Courtney tried logging in to her social media accounts, but seeing her mother referred to in the past tense overwhelmed her. She wanted to scream to her well-meaning friends, “I am not ready for my mother to be a “was” yet!” Courtney turned off her phone and asked her best friend to become her family’s informal digital proxy by posting updates from the family on Courtney’s Facebook page, including logistical information about the funeral service and burial. In turn, her friend shared with Courtney the many appreciative comments about her mother’s life from social media sites and from the on-line guest book for her mother’s obituary.
Inevitably, time passed, and Courtney began the long journey of grief, incorporating the death of her mother into her own life story, gaining narrative resilience word by word, click by click. Through Facebook, she gained access to memories and stories from the geographically dispersed group of her mom’s friends, even learning from them how much her mom appreciated the sacrifices she had made to care for her. She still views her mom’s Pinterest board, savoring those unique ideas and dreams. Courtney and her brothers have committed to weekly Skype dates, where they check in and stay connected as they each grieve their mom in their own ways. They have already taken the step of memorializing their mother’s Facebook page, mostly to have closure and to ensure her privacy will be protected.
Courtney’s story reminds us that even if we personally plan for the management and bequeathal of our digital assets and story, a trusted loved one will be the one to carry out our wishes. Some families could benefit from legal counsel, but much can be done informally, as we saw with Courtney’s family. The critical first step is recognizing how digital assets can both provide support and — paradoxically — overwhelm without careful management. The next step is deciding how best to use those assets.
Like Courtney, daughters will most likely be the ones to initiate the conversation, but not all of us will have the luxury of time and ability to talk about what we wish. The time to plan for our digital legacy, both assets and story, is now. Far surpassing any monetary value, our digital narrative assets hold tremendous sentimental value for those who will find comfort and meaning from our cloud of digital witnesses.
*Courtney’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. She represents one of the Gen X interview cohort interviewed by Amy Ziettlow and Elizabeth Marquardt for a forthcoming book on 21st century caregiving and grief.
Writing a will is never an easy thing. Chances are you may be part of the 60%# of people without a will. Are you part of a family? 77% of families with kids below five have not prepared anything. Even between 55 to 64, chances are that you have not, either. Not having a will is something that can unleash hell on unsuspecting families. Under the grief of one’s loved one, you may still have to face haggling with others to get part of the legacy, assets, or even discussing the custody of kids. Not everyone has a will today, or updated it, or even told their close ones where it could be found — even when it’s crucial to prepare the inevitable and to prepare for the lives of those who stay.
We used to speak of the life, and afterlife. Two distinct worlds. A third space has also been growing these past years, overlapping both, intertwined, a space where time does not matter and where we spend more and more time. A place where newspapers do not become yellow and crispy, where pictures do not fade, where things are crystallized, and your alter ego can be put on pause for a few decades without changing, still loving the same music, living in the same place, reading the same things. You guessed right, that’s the digital space — a space we live in (and sometimes fall asleep in), surrounding nearly each of our steps (yes, that smartphone in your pocket), but that we don’t often see as a world in itself because it’s precisely out of time.
So, chances are even more higher that you’re part of the majority without a planning for your digital belongings. Let me ask you a simple question: if you were to die today, would your family and close ones have the keys to access your digital property, such as bank accounts, insurances details, and so on? Would you like them to go through all of your correspondence or use your onlines IDs ? Have you had the idea before ? I guess that if you are currently reading this, you may be part of the next generation of digital producers, and that you look forward being proactive in the transmissions of your electronic stuff. Doing so also gives control over the becomings of your goods: things are going to be done, and it’s always preferable to be sure that they correspond to what you would like to happen.
Numbers show that your digital legacy is growing day by day. As an estate litigation said, we are shifting from love letters and shoeboxes to emails and USB drives. McAfee, the security firm from Intel, revealed in 2011 that americans own digital assets up to 55.000$#. The Research firm MSI International has reviewed 3000 users in 10 countries, who in average estimate their digital possessions around 38000$. Assets can be divided in different categories : personal records account for around $7000, $3800 in career information, $2,848 in hobbies and projects, $2800 for Personal Communications and $2100 for entertainment files. And numbers? Let’s have a look at the numbers. Today, estimates say that 3 facebook users are dying every minute. Digital natives obviously are there as well, but baby boomers are shifting to an online presence as well. Or you can also say that around 600,000 US facebook users will die this year.
By the end of 2012, legal aspects are still unclear#. Some, like Massachusetts Senator Cynthia Creem or other US policy makers, are working towards more transparency in the legacy of digital assets — making it the digital legacy law a federal matter. On the other hands, the services providers may not want to do so. In these times of turmoil, what will become of your treasures, such as your financial assets, personal effects, and all the things you value, like pictures, notebooks, correspondence, … ?
Lastly, there is a part of monetary value, but you also have to consider the sentimental value. But I guess you know that better than me, right?