Should This Blog Be Cast in Stone and Live Forever?

In my end-of-year-cleaning-digital-assets procedure I have found an Outlook contact of a user deceased some years ago.

I have just tweaked this blog’s stylesheet – although I know that the layout will revert to the default when I will have died and nobody will pay for the WordPress’ Custom Design feature anymore.

So what will happen to our cloud data and our social media profiles when we eventually die?

I tried to find this out for some profiles and networks I use:

[Voice from the future: A few years after having written this post, many links have died. I do not change them though.]

Facebook allows for the submission of a Memorialization Request. This request has to include proof of the person’s death. Facebook will try to prevent references to memorialized accounts from appearing on Facebook in ways that may be upsetting to the person’s friends and family. This means you are deprived of the right of shocking your ancestors via the content of your Facebook profile. Your family would also have the right to request the removal of your page.

Thus if you want to live forever through your writing you better write on real paper. However, it is comforting that anyone can send private messages to the deceased person.

It was hard to find related information for Google+ accounts as all searches for ‘Google’ and ‘dead’ yield articles about Google, Google Plus, Google Reader or other Google products  being dead. You should search for digital afterlife instead. Google helps you with Plan[ing] your digital afterlife with Inactive Account Manager.

You can tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason. For example, you can choose to have your data deleted — after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity

In contrast to Facebook Google puts you in control.

I have enabled Inactive Account Manager now for research purposes. You can configure your time-out to 18 months maximum – then Google will process the configured steps, such as contacting your configured trusted persons. This is probably the best way for web 2.0 providers to collect data about the network of persons that really matters to us.

LinkedIn requires a surviving user to fill in and digitally sign the Verification of Death form. Start here.

You might worry about the destiny of those flattering recommendations: Endorsements given by deceased persons are gone then, too. But LinkedIn responds:

Please don’t take it personally!
Recommendations are tied to Accounts,
so if the account is closed, …,
everything goes with it.
It’s just the way the system works.

Twitter allows for a seemingly informal procedure: You can (snail) mail or fax to the address give here – which just includes a fax number. We cannot tweet from the grave as [They] are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.

WordPress like[s] to help the family and/or estate determine what happens with their loved one’s site. This refreshingly casual form allows for transfer of the ownership to next of kin.

Thus summarizing social networks deal with deceased users by allowing for deletion by legitimate heirs, by freezing the site and turning in into a memorial page, or by giving ownership to authorized persons. Google tries to give the mortal users some control upfront.

It seems that none of those networks allow for the user stating his or her will, such as: My page and all that humiliating comments and rants I have published throughout my lifetime should be online forever.

If you have followed my blog for a while you I am attracted – in an odd way – by the creepiness of futuristic visions. I owe Dan Mullin for the pointer to this much too realistic video and for asking Who owns the digital person?

Before our minds are ready to be uploaded to a futuristic cloud we have e.g. the following options:

DeadSocial allows us all to say our final goodbyes on our own terms and for us to extend our digital legacy using the social web.  Your trusted social media will executors will trigger your tweeting and posting from the grave for hundred years to come. Lawyers, it’s your turn to explain to me what will happen of these executors disagree with next of kin.

PasswordBox (that has acquired Legacy Locker) offers what is called in IT lingo a single-sign-on password manager. All your passwords are stored and transferred in encrypted fashion to the service, and you can grant permissions to trusted persons to access your credentials after your death. The security features are impressing – and you are right in worrying about what happens if you forget the master password.

LivesOn is closer to the idea used in the video. According to this article it is not a product but

an artificial intelligence experiment. LivesOn makes a new Twitter account for you while you’re still alive and analyzes your original account for your interests, tastes and syntax. As time goes on, the LivesOn feed will begin posting updates, after learning your style. Users will be able to favorite tweets to give feedback, increasing the system’s intelligence. When the time comes, you can nominate an “executor” to your LivesOn will, and they will decide whether to keep your account live.

LivesOn’s founder says:

“The afterlife is not a new idea, it’s been around for quite a long time with all the different versions of heaven and hell,” Lean Mean Fighting Machine’s Bedwood said. “To me this isn’t any stranger than any one of those. In fact, it might be less strange.”

16 Comments Add yours

  1. Irgendeine says:

    Dear Elke, now I’m sure, I don’t register at Facebook or others in the near future.

    1. elkement says:

      So my post had a lasting impact :-)

  2. M. Hatzel says:

    The Lives On account would be very useful for succession planning; you can keep control of your business dynasty through algorithms rather than people, which may be infinitely more reliable and “true” to your own (originating) vision. My goodness… the philosophical repercussions of that! I love this post, and how I miss being a regular reader! New Year’s resolutions, as much as I don’t like to play with them, should include a ‘return to sanity’ clause which reactivates my blogging interactions.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Michelle for visiting! I really wish you all the best with ‘return to sanity’!!
      I could hardly resist creating such an account – probably I will do it one day. I think that my tweeting is very predictable actually. And as you said – this account would be more like myself maybe if I ever change – and stop my usual science-philosophy-geek-security broadcasts!

  3. bert0001 says:

    People go to a notary public to include passwords in their last will, here …
    In the end, all data dies. It’s difficult to find things back that are older than 5 or 10 years. And the early days of the internet are barely alive. It is constantly morphing, like this old site once used to be;

    1. elkement says:

      I agree – it is hard work to migrate and convert the old stuff over and over if you want it to be googleable or probably even readable. I had once read about the claim that our age will be documented much worse than the times when people just wrote letters that survived for decades to come.
      I have never heard about people including passwords in their wills here – but probably I am not aware of it. At least it is usual or not discussed in public at all.

  4. Mike Howe says:

    That was interesting and I had wondered about stuff like that so thanks for doing the research for us :) Since both my kids have grown up using FB, twitter and the rest of it, it did make me wonder will their whole lives now be documented on FB if they chose to stay with it? Or do you think FB will die out in favour of something else? Hard to imagine a whole lifetime of photos and posts from them from teenage years all the way to old age? Weird… ;)

    And the thought of there being one day hundreds of thousands of profiles of dead people floating around the ether, very odd. I’d love to know where this is all going?

    1. elkement says:

      Yes, I thought along similar lines! In a sense “spying by the NSA” and the downside of documenting your life online might be overrated in comparison with the loss when corporations dutidully delete everything. But I have read that younger people already leave Facebook for Instagram and Snapchat – because now parents and teachers are on Facebook. I would assume social networks will become obsolete and it will be “hard work” to continously update and migrate you stuff – if you like to. I have seen so many websites and blogs become orphaned even within the lifetime of their owners.

  5. Good to know. Always interesting to find out what is happening inside your head :-) I imagine that over time the sites will develop ever more sophisticated policy and practice around this.

    1. elkement says:

      As I said to Dave below – my fascination with this is probably something specifically Austrian (Viennese). I would also expect procedures and policies for “Digital Legacy” to become part of the standard things notaries of the future will take of.

  6. Leave it to Elke to come up with something I’d never thought about. I wonder how many interesting blogs have been discovered by folks only after the author has ceased to exist? Are there blogs out there that have cult followings even when the author isn’t around to moderate or respond? I wonder? D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dave – I live close to Vienna and Viennese people are infamous for their morbid attraction to anything death-related to this topic came rather natural to me :-)
      I have read that there are even tons of orphaned bank accounts – which is nice for the banks. So I would not be surprised if the majority of all blogs, websites etc. are orphaned, too. I have seen many profiles and sites I would consider “orphaned” even though I know their owners are still alive – but they have simply forgotten about them (or about the passwords…)

  7. danielmullin81 says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for doing this research. It’s the first time I’ve seen anybody lay out the way the various social media giants are grappling with the idea of digital selves and digital afterlife. I think the import of these questions will only grow over time.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dan – I am totally fascinated by Digital Legacy, in particular because I feel the legal aspect is underrated in comparison to geeky futurism. And after all it’s a philosophical question “Why care at all if I am dead anyway?” … probably a promising field to specialize in as a counselor ;-)

  8. David Yerle says:

    Hi! I’ve been gone for a while and just go and find this post. Really interesting. It kind of leaves me wondering about what I should do. I am reticent to have my data deleted after my death, reasoning as follows: what if it was possible, in the future, to reconstruct a person by looking at the trail left by them from the past? I.e. letters, blog posts, etc. The more information, the better the reconstruction will be. It seems kind of cool to be reconstructed in the future (for simulation purposes or whatever) so I’ll make it as easy as I can. Of course this is really far-fetched but anyway once dead I won’t have much to lose…

    1. elkement says:

      You should definitely use LivesOn, David – just for research purposes. It was tempting but I was reluctant to sign up – what if my shadow Twitter account becomes conscious and tries to kill my genuine online avatars?

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