As I See It: After You’re Gone (.com)
September 28, 2009 Victor Rozek
My wife’s grandmother was born while the Ottoman Empire was still in business–which is to say a long time ago. When she died, she left behind memorabilia from a life that spanned nearly a century. There were photos–boxes of them–some in albums, some loose, some marked, some not, some capturing moments with people known to the family, some showing the smiling faces of strangers. There were letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, mementos, knick-knacks, and memorabilia documenting the lives of four children. It was a mountain of minutia; the physical remnants of a long, full life.
Family members were undoubtedly comforted by the survival of so many keepsakes, but the sheer volume of stuff was daunting. Someone had to sort through it, make sense of it, and decide which family member might want a particular item. That job fell to my wife and two years later, boxes of her grandmother’s effects are still crammed in our closets. The sorting and cataloging continues, with no end in sight.
But as succeeding generations march inevitably toward what has been irreverently called “the eternal dirt nap,” such experiences will become rarer. These days, hardly anyone writes letters, we write e-mails. Diaries migrated to the Internet and became blogs. Photos escaped the family album, got digitized and are stored online where they can be shared. Social networks contain running commentaries on our lives, including things we may not want our relatives to know about us. Online accounts of various flavors attest to our buying and entertainment preferences. In short, each of us has a growing digital presence that promises to outlive us, portions of which may never have been intended for family viewing. Once you’re gone, the question is: Who owns the rights to the digital detritus you leave behind?
Someday soon, the digital presence will be treated like any other asset and people will specify in their wills who is entitled to view/inherit their virtual leftovers. Until then, however, the determinations are made by individual service providers based on privacy restrictions and the wishes of the family. And when those interests clash, the courts have stepped in to decide the final disposition.
Tangentially, digital legacy became an issue of urgent concern after the dreadful events at Virginia Tech. The April 2007 murder of 32 students and faculty left the nation stunned and the campus stupefied. As a means of remembrance and closure, students turned to the decedent’s Facebook accounts to post comments and create community.
In this regard, social networks were a source of great solace. When death is unexpected, such networks can help cushion the shock, permitting survivors to contact friends of the deceased to find comfort in sharing memories of a life cut short. But there is also the chance that the unwashed rude could post insensitive material or that family members could find out things they would prefer not to know.
Gaelle Faure, writing for Time magazine, reports that in the wake of the tragedy, Facebook recognized it needed to create a special protocol for handling such accounts. The result was the creation of a “memorial state” that eliminates certain features “such as status updates and group affiliations.” Profile viewing and comment posting are restricted to confirmed friends. And although Facebook will honor a family’s request to take down a profile, it will continue to respect the privacy of the user even after death by refusing to disclose passwords.
The level of protection afforded the emails of deceased users varies by provider. Yahoo Mail, reports Faure, commits to keeping email activity confidential even after death. But there have been instances in which families have gone to court to obtain the emails of loved ones, and the court has granted their request. Yahoo countered by providing the family with a CD of the email account, but not the password. Microsoft‘s Hotmail, reports Faure, will provide the family an email CD upon request, but it requires proof of “power of attorney and a death certificate.” Google‘s Gmail demands the same proofs “plus a copy of an email the deceased sent to the petitioner.” So if your family is too techno phobic to embrace computer technology, and therefore doesn’t communicate with you by email, they’re out of luck.
Safeguards notwithstanding, nothing on the Internet is certain. For those whose antics in cyberspace might prove troubling to friends and relatives, a combination of planning and restraint can minimize embarrassment to your legacy and pain for your survivors. That, of course, presumes that you want to spare your survivors. If revenge is a dish best served cold, you can’t get much colder than dead. More than one secret keeper may want messages sent to selected people after his/her demise–all the things they were afraid to say in the living years.
And this being America, there are purchasable solutions to either eventuality.
Faure lists at least three companies–Legacy Locker, Asset Lock, and the gothically named Deathswitch–that are willing to help you manage your digital afterlife. Deathswitch advertises itself as “bridging mortality,” which is grandiose but alas inaccurate. If you subscribe to its service, you won’t be sending messages from the afterlife, but based on your instructions, the company will send emails on your behalf, complete with attachments that can include video, pictures, and documents. So whether it’s critical work files, or bank account information, or secret passwords, or expressions of love and gratitude, or what the company calls “unspeakable secrets” that have been carried like bricks for a lifetime, off they will go to your designated contact list once you are no longer able to pay for storing the information. And how does Deathswitch know you’re dead? They ask you. Periodically (you choose the interval) you will be prompted to verify you are still among the living, and if no reply comes after repeated prompts, the company assumes you are now surfing in another dimension.
Of course, not everyone thinks this is such a good idea. Mark O’Neill writing for Geeks Are Sexy, wonders if he could trust perfect strangers with his confidential banking information; or whether he’d want his Mom to receive the dreaded “Mark is dead” email. (Those of you looking for a niche business opportunity: a singing telegram delivered by a paramedic might be kinder.) And because there are a lot of mean, vindictive people out there, one cringes at the potential onslaught of deathbed vitriol. Still, as key portions of our lives migrate to the Internet, it’s worth considering how we would want our digital legacy to be distributed.
There is something undeniably sad about the virtual plug being pulled along with the one they pull when you run out of insurance. At its best, the Internet is full of creativity, cleverness, and whimsy. Each person’s virtual presence is like a unique digital fingerprint. And in an era when memories have migrated online, they are certainly worth saving.
But sadder still is the thought of children discovering that Daddy was a porno freak, or Grandma seeing pictures of her favorite granddaughter in some stage of undress cavorting with boys and bong at a frat party. Sometimes, secrets held cause pain for one, and secrets shared cause pain for many.
Which brings us back to planning and restraint. Perhaps as this issue grows in awareness and importance it will spawn an era of responsible Internet use.
Nah. Who am I kidding?