Google the phrase “digital afterlife.” If it’s something you haven’t heard of before, you will be both surprised and confused at what you find. In an interesting new take on the inescapable phenomenon of death, the internet has progressed enough to be able to adapt to anything, even the possibility that one day the active, alive users of Facebook will be outnumbered by the unused profiles of people who are dead. In a society where so many people have double lives online that many of their close family members and friends are clueless about, several new services have sprung up to capitalize on the fact that people want to prepare for their death.
One Chicago lawyer recently spoke to the New York Times and encouraged people to write their “digital assets” into their wills, to avoid “legal or emotional issues” in the future. And while some people think that what they put online isn’t of any grave importance, after you’re gone, you’re never exactly sure what might be important to your family. Major insurance companies like AARP are coming around to the fact that a “digital estate” now exists, and that people are worried about what might happen to it after they die. “Digital estate planning” has actually become an industry, where third-party sites are willing to collect your information to release it to designated beneficiaries after your death, so that others may have control over your online identity after your death.
Some websites, including Facebook and Gmail, allow for their settings to be modified so you can decide what happens to your account when you die. In the case of Google, a person can list up to ten beneficiaries that Google must notify in the event their account is inactive for a pre-specified unit of time. Some people might find planning ahead that far in advance for something like an internet profile absolutely ridiculous. But some people, including certain media scholars, just can’t help but wonder — what happens to all the information you’ve left on the internet when you die?
Your online identity is something that you develop carefully over the course of your time using the internet and social media. The bits and pieces of yourself that you’ve allowed others to see through Facebook and Twitter profiles are still out there, even after you go. Who has access to this information? For how long? Social media scholar Adele McAlear has set up her own website, DeathandDigitalLegacy.com, to ponder whether or not what we’re leaving behind on the internet when we go is a legacy of our lives, or merely clutter that’s taking up space — what the New York Times has called “digital litter.”
It can be argued that the Tweets and blog posts we leave behind are part of a digital scrapbook we’ve been creating, and that friends and loved ones will cherish a preserved record of our thoughts at the time. For some, Facebook is an outlet to grieve and remember the deceased by. It’s almost like having a memorial service that never ends. Regardless of how much time has gone by since the passing of a friend or loved one, a cathartic way to get out your thoughts and feelings and closed unresolved issues that you didn’t get a chance to fix when the other party was alive.
And this isn’t the only instance where something like this has happened. In August of this year, Sportswriter Martin Manley killed himself at age 60 — but only after leaving an incredibly detailed and somewhat disturbing list of reasons why on a website he’d set up beforehand with a prepaid five year subscription to Yahoo. In his site, he explained:
After you die, you can be remembered by a few-line obituary for one day in a newspaper when you’re too old to matter to anyone anyway… OR you can be remembered for years by a site such as this. That was my choice and I chose the obvious.
He left dozens of essays on his website, saying virtually everything a person could ever want to say before they die. Not long after this went viral, Yahoo took the website down, claiming it violated their own terms of service. Though his sister started a campaign for Yahoo to restore the website, they have not, but it hasn’t stopped Manley’s site from living on in infamy. There are copycat websites that still allow for the site to be read, proving that Manley is right — your online identity can be preserved for years after your death.
With an estimated 30 million inactive and dead users on Facebook, one can’t help but wonder what’s going on with all the information the deceased have left behind on social media. Michael Patterson, a website designer, was curious of the same thing — which prompted him to create the website MyDeathSpace.com. Patterson was interested in how social media affects the memory of someone who is deceased among their family and friends. He is quoted saying that looking at the internet profiles of those who have passed “is like looking at a snapshot of a person’s life the moment before they passed away. You can see what the person was into, what music they enjoyed and so many interesting things that were important before their passing.” In a way, it’s just another version of gone but not forgotten. It’s making sure the memory of a person lives on, not just with broad generalizations such as “they were nice, they were kind, they were a good father,” but also with the smaller details as well, and all the things that make up a person’s online identity.
What might be the most disturbing part of this whole phenomena is that there are some people we know only by their online identity. Take into consideration how many people you interact with solely online. How many Facebook friends you wouldn’t say hello to if you saw them on the street. How shocking it might be to stumble onto their profile one day only to discover from a post from a family member that they have died. Scholar Jed Brubaker writes, “This Facebook generation will have more experiences with death than any generation before it. Because anyone you ever knew, people who have naturally faded from your life, will remain there and you will stumble into them and realize they are dead.”
So what really happens to Cyberspace and your online identity when you’re dead? For now, unless you’re a tech-savvy scholar or a high-profile celebrity, your information is quietly fading into the background with a shelf life of several years before it simply disappears from prominence on the internet. But what about the people who lead double lives? Those that have one persona that their friends and family are privy to, and another, separate online identity? Advocates for setting up digital estates warn that extramarital affairs and secret bank information might be exposed after death to people who go digging if a careful plan isn’t set up ahead of time.
In the case of one blogger, Mac Tonnies, who died of a sudden heart attack, his parents were unaware of the almost cult-like following his photographs were receiving online. They inherited his computer, but none of his internet passwords, and so his Flickr account was never removed or cancelled. Hundreds of photographs can no longer be viewed due to the time lapse, and his parents have faced a lot of backlash from the circles of fans Tonnies had on the internet that his parents simply knew nothing about.
It gives you something to think about, going forward. Knowing that your online identity will still be visible after you die, unless you set up precautionary measures to have it removed, makes you want to be a little more careful about what you put online. After all, you could die tomorrow, or any minute now. I could die after I finish typing this blog post, and my last Tweet would be visible to all for the end of eternity:
However, the underlying fact of the matter is that even though we live in a fast-paced world where the shelf-life of internet activity doesn’t ever appear to be more than a few hours at the most, what we put out into cyberspace does continue to exist, even after we pass. Our online identities can exist forever in the infinite mass of webpages and blogs, and it’s important to remember that the next time you think about how you want people to remember you, especially the people that may only know you by your online signifiers. After all, you could be the person someone else stumbles upon one day, when they’re surprised and oddly saddened to hear that you’re dead after not having spoken to you in ten years, because they still feel like they’ve kept in touch, just from seeing your Facebook vacation photos every summer since high school ended.