Death, Data and the Digital Hereafter

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

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

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. Eterni.me 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’ (Eterni.me), 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.

Your Digital Legacy Can Live On

Your Digital Legacy Can Live On

I read with interest this week that an estimated 11% of people in the UK are leaving their internet passwords in their will so that their loved ones can access their personal data online.

A survey commissioned by cloud computing company Rackspace concluded that more than a quarter of the 2,000 people asked had digital assets worth more than £200. With photographs, films and videos so easily stored online, they have in many cases replaced the hard copy photo album and DVD. When you lose someone, it makes sense that you’d still want to be able to access those assets rather than leaving them online.

By 2020, a third expect to store all their music online, whilst a quarter anticipated keeping all their photos online. In addition, passwords for sites such as Facebook and Flickr are also being included in wills to ensure that personal data can be protected. It’s a sensible idea given how difficult it can be to get hold of these passwords.

Facebook pages can often become tributes to the person, but can also fall victim to spammers or malicious comments, so bequeathing your passwords can allow those left behind to maintain these pages or close them down.

Only the other day, I was shocked to see Facebook suggesting I might want to be friends with someone who is no longer with us – it’s the decent thing to empower relatives to take these pages down if it’s not appropriate that they’re online any more. I hate to be old school about it, but I’m not sure being left an eBook or Flickr account is quite as precious as the original book or a box of old photos owned by someone you loved!

What are your thoughts?

Changing responses to death in the digital age

Changing responses to death in the digital age

Death in the digital age – what happens to our status updates and selfies after we’ve gone?
Researchers Dr Paul Coulton and Selina Ellis Gray are analysing the ways in which western mourning practices are changing in the modern world thanks to the increasing amounts of personal data we leave online.

Selina Ellis Gray said: “Our deaths are now followed by the slow decay of a massive body of data, which include huge amounts created from regular social media use.”

As part of her interdisciplinary PhD, she is questioning what happens to all our tweets, status updates and selfies after we’ve gone and how can we begin to design for these remains.

Until the social media boom the popular understanding was the public mourning was in retreat in the west, with social and religious traditions no longer having such a uniform influence on the way we say goodbye. But in today’s Facebook age a new form of mourning has emerged. Selina Ellis Gray’s ongoing research explores blogs about grief, memorial pages on Facebook, tributes on Instagram, shrines on twitter, digital scrapbooks and support groups for the bereaved springing up in diverse and highly personal responses to loss. Decades of similar digital content is also decaying, posing new problems to those that are left behind to manage it.

Dr Coulton said: “In today’s digital age, when we die we often leave behind a digital legacy. Relatives are no longer only considering what to do with books, tea sets, vases and toolboxes but they are also thinking about online social remnants such as digital photos, videos, status updates and emails.

“While these ghostly reminders online are enabling new types of mourning practices, they are consequently presenting a number of challenges to the traditional role of custodianship as these remnants of digital life cannot be placed within rooms or on shelves in quite the same way as a piece of jewellery or a lock of hair.

“These remains are searchable, discoverable and open to reinterpretation such that the dead can return unbidden to haunt the living in unexpected ways.”

The threshold between life and death has also become a much more public event with the last status updates and final tweets of victims of events such as the Colorado massacre becoming global news. Selina has documented how such spaces online have become highly visited, with some gathering over 10 million views and daily visitors who consider these places as a positive focus for their loss. She hopes her ongoing research in this emergent area will have an impact on future technology design and also support services. Alongside her thesis, Selina has a number of publications forthcoming in 2014 and will be presenting at this year’s first ‘Death Online Research’ symposium with other leading experts in the field.

Dr Coulton said: “These changing responses to death – and the digital legacy we leave behind – are posing all sorts of new questions and challenges, not only for technology designers and professionals who provide bereavement support but also for society in general.”

Clear rules needed for managing digital afterlife

eBook: table of content.

BOOK

I. Introduction

II. Good practices

III. Steps to follow: an audit

  • 1. Do an online cartography
  • 2. Remove what you don’t use
  • 3. Cloud what you can
  • 4. Update a password list
  • 5. And do it regularly

IV. To be prepared if sh*t happen

  • Prepare a will executor
  • A trendy alternative
  • Prepare a digital legacy locker
  • Do you want a physical locker ?
  • Prepare your data flows today
  • Write out instructions for each package
  • The Poor Man solution
  • Get to know more

V. Bye

  • Beware !
  • Thanks!
  • Long live the King (or Queen)
  • BONUS
  • A service checklist

List of services // digital legacy tools 

Death policies of your the different services you may use

Clear rules needed for managing digital afterlife

Personal data, 101 — digital legacy

Social networks make the world more and more connected, and thus, we may be even more connected with the death of friends. An average user may have around 250 connections#, and that’s far more than the number of people we used to be connected to. Moreover, odds are that you will know rather quickly when someone you knew passes, when it used to be communication from the family.

If you have different friends group online, chances are that you don’t want to share everything with all of them. Considering you’re a gamer.. what’s the use of your character and equipment for your non gamer nephew? Considering you’re fascinated by sewing.. what’s the use of your sewing patterns for a neophyte? While you may have a repo on GitHub, what do you want your account to become? Remove it? Your personal goods can be really different : imagine the different ebooks, your MP3s or other music, DRM protected or not, your game characters, …

Another aspect that is not as sexy as before is all the financial and tax-related data. More and more countries allow for tax information collection online. And this is a really annoying issue. Previously, estate-planning attorneys used to go through physical papers, but now, the access can be more complicated.