Cyberspace When You’re Dead

Mictorate Surrogate

I’ve thought about this actually – what would happen if I died suddenly?1 My family would know, eventually, but what about people I know mostly from Flickr, or Twitter, or my blog, or wherever. What is the protocol for online death notices?

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.

(click to continue reading Cyberspace When You’re Dead –

Not to mention, what would happen to my unpublished photos? Some of them could even be good! Or all these half-finished writings? Who am I kidding, I don’t even have a regular will, so who is going to sort through my boxes of CDs? Ahem.2

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine died of a brain tumor. I had never met her in the flesh,3 but she was still my friend. We met through my blog, and soon expanded our relationship to become email buddies, and we just clicked, talked about whatever friends talk about. Friends are friends, right? I still tear up thinking about her untimely death, I found out about it when her husband sent out a brief email, and posted a short obit on her webpage.

How will interactions like this unfold in the future? There are a lot of folk that I know solely from online interactions, yet they are still friends. I know I’m not the only one. What happens to the digital flotsam and jetsam that makes up our 21st C.E. life?

What about future biographers? What will they use to create a compelling record of a life lived? Gore Vidal was able to recreate most of Aaron Burr’s life through records and writings, what will happen when someone wants to write the history of a contemporary of Mark Zuckerberg?

  1. I did have some odd heart palpitations actually, a few months ago, but I didn’t go to the doctor, and they have not reoccured. So I have ignored them unless I’m feeling particularly maudlin. []
  2. I really should make a will though. Do you have one? []
  3. though I would have if I ever had been to Los Angeles, or if she had come to Chicago []

1 thought on “Cyberspace When You’re Dead

  1. Beth says:

    I’ve thought about the same thing. I’ve had many friends online and there have been a few who have disappeared leaving a certain void or feeling of emptiness and that sense that I will never know what happened because either I don’t know their full names or some prefer handles troubles me – I dearly miss their “voices”. Then there are those folks I brush up against on Facebook. I remember finding out a classmate that I knew from 4th-12th had passed away after visiting her FB page and seeing all of the tributes to her; I’d missed that sad day by months and it left me feeling a bit off – shouldn’t I have known? What kind of “friend”doesn’t know when another passes away? I still haven’t removed her from my Friends list. Is there some kind of online etiquette to follow?

    You occasionally bump up against these brilliant souls online with their incredible vision and voices who allow you a peek inside their world and sometimes you really connect. When they disappear inexplicably, I find it bewildering and sad because I mourn the loss of their “voice”.

    Maybe I’ll just have Jay post on FB and the BBM “She’s gone. Thank god. Carry on.”

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