Death, Data and the Digital Hereafter

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/

A soon-to-be-released science fiction movie, Transcendence, features Johnny Depp as a scientist who becomes immortalised as a digital entity – an event that is referred to by many as the Singularity. This is still rather far from reality, of course, but it did get me thinking about death and what happens to ‘our’ data – all those Facebook chats, Instagram photos and so on. I’m talking about the digital hereafter.

Your digital persona

It was around the turn of the millennium when I first started using the internet seriously (by which I mean how much time and energy I spent on the internet, not what I used it for). Back then, I spent my time online divided between MySpace, and plenty of forums. I certainly wasn’t thinking about a data backlog, or what would happen when I die. But as more and more of my life moved online, this has come to my attention as something not too many people think about. I don’t actually know, but I would guess that I have a profile at well over 200 websites, including social media sites, forums, retail and financial services, and any number of arbitrary web-apps that required me to sign up to use them just once.

My point is, as the internet has grown we have strewn our personal data far and wide across numerous websites, with little further thought for that data, sequestered in servers across the world. And in so doing, we have created a kind of avatar – a nebulous collection of data points in the cloud, that together makes up an online persona.

Your data after you die

Google, Facebook, and Twitter all have strategies to deal with accounts of the deceased – Facebook will ‘memorialise’ a profile if a family member can confirm the death of that person. This turns the profile of the deceased into a public memorial page, which won’t show status updates but still allows loved ones to post messages. Twitter just locks your information down, while Google has what they call the Inactive Account Manager – after a defined period of inactivity, Google will  transfer your data to a trusted contact and/or shut down your account. In general, it seems that the data will be made available to loved ones (or the courts) if absolutely necessary. Several companies have positioned themselves as managers of you digital legacy – covered in this blogpost. For a more in-depth discussion of digital estate planning, see this NY Times article published last year.

Now for some more outlandish options for the digital afterlife. Several companies have caught on to this opportunity, and are offering to immortalise your digital persona for posterity. promises to create a digital version of the deceased, which will continue to post status updates and send messages. The company will parse your data to create an virtual ‘you’ based on your likes, browsing history and previous social media messages. LivesOn is another such project, which promises to keep tweeting for you after you die. With taglines like ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting. Welcome to your social afterlife.’ (LivesOn) or the frankly misleading ‘Simply Become Immortal’ (, these services are not for everybody. Personally, I find the idea of a dead loved one tweeting something inane rather distasteful, and I would be downright upset if a digital ghost started messaging me about the good times we had back when they were alive.

Corporates aren’t the only ones thinking quite seriously about this stuff – there is a website, The Digital Beyond, which has been started to discuss and document these issues. The owners of the site have also written a bookdiscussing one’s options for curating the digital remains of a loved one. Academia is getting in on the act, too:researchers in the UK are studying how Western public mourning practices are changing. They document massive growth in online mourning rituals, such as the aforementioned memorial pages on Facebook, blogs dedicated to the memory of loved ones, and so on.

Another way of dealing with digital remains

I would like to consider another aspect of this discussion, one which I have not seen discussed much: the value of that data as a public resource. Data has become the unofficial second currency of business in the 21st century – just look at mobile developers. They run at a loss for years, until someone will buy their captive audience from them as data for the great online advertising machine. As it stands, the digital remnants of a life belong to the company that owned that data to begin with. But I have a alternative suggestion, which would be massively useful if implemented correctly. What if, after a reasonable mourning period (call it five years to be safe), all of that data was parsed, anonymised, and made publicly available, for free? Think of the wealth of data that would represent, over the next few decades, or even centuries. Big Data is an overhyped topic right now, but we are already seeing it’s mark across the world. Think of the complex modelling and forecasting that would be possible. Think of the boost to academia, industry, commerce, financial services and even sport. And applied to humanitarian work in health or the environment, it would quite literally change the world.

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Digital Death Guide – What Happens Online After You Die?

Each of us represent an average person on this globe. Most of us have Facebook account where we will share hundreds of contents including photos, videos and emotions yearly. Some of us will probably have Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest and other social channels as well.

More than 70% of the online population are using social networks and this number is growing faster everyday. The one thing that the 1.1 billion people currently on social networks have in common is that they are all going to die one day.

Life Insurance Finder published a really interesting infographic which offers us some preparation ideas for the inevitable:

– Gmail can send your next of kin all your emails and contacts on request. And so can Hotmail.

– Twitter can give your next of kin a copy of all your public tweets.

– Do you have any digital dirty laundry you should be worried about? All your data stored in the cloud belongs to the individual platform provider and they might use it unless you disallow them to.

– Will you want to one day to resurrect your digital self or perhaps even create a living clone or hologram of you that could interact with future generations? Personality predictors already exist such as ‘that can be my next tweet’ and ‘Hunch’ that can make certain predictions based on your social media data.

– With Life Naut you can build a mind file of almost your entire life experience. .

Where do you see your digital self in 100 years?

If you are really paranoid, here’s the comprehensive version of the digital death planning guide for reference.

Your digital legacy – what happens when you die?

Your digital legacy – what happens when you die?

You have several social media profiles, a few email addresses, online banking and probably a hundred registrations on various sites all over the Internet. Have you ever stopped to think what will happen to your online presence when (not if) you eventually die? Is there anyone you know who could access all of it, if that day came sooner than you think?

‘Digital’ Wills?

You may feel that if you have passed your details and passwords on to your loved ones (perhaps in your will) that they will simply be able to take care of all the paperwork on your behalf. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case – there are legal hoops to jump through and the end result is not always easily arrived at.

Apps to the rescue

Thankfully the world of Apps has come to the rescue. It is now possible to store your online accounts credentials in one place where they can be accessed by your family after your death. One of these is Angel Alerts where your passwords, security questions and ID’s can be looked after in a secure environment until your executer gains access. You simply make that person your digital heir and all it will take is proof of your death to allow them access.

Digital memories for your loved ones

Your digital online presence is not only a place where your identity is stored, it is a place where memories are kept. If you want your family to have access to your most precious online accounts, cloud-stored photos, Facebook conversations and Twitter messages – you need to think ahead and create the perfect environment for this to happen.