Estate Planning in the Internet Age

By R.O. Blechman

Last fall my coworker and friend Lisa passed away.  Like most of us who worked with her, shortly after hearing the news I visited her Facebook profile, scanned through her pictures, grieved for her in my way.  What I did not do was leave a message on her wall.  Other people chose to, and while the practice is no different from any sort of physical memorial, I still found it in poor taste.

But it did leave me wondering. This train we’re all on, it’s taking us to the same place.  I currently have two Twitter accounts, one Facebook, one Flickr, one YouTube currently active.  I also have a Blogger, a LiveJournal, a Deadjournal, an OpenDiary and countless email addresses in the digital trash heap. What happens to all this stuff?  It’s been almost four months since Lisa passed.  Her Facebook is still there, the messages still get posted. What happens to our digital souls when we die?

This is the question the NY Times tried to answer in a piece published today. I’m not going to spit back the details of the article, because you’re all big boys and girls, you can read it yourself.  The most fascinating part of the article, I found, was learning about the ‘information insurance’ agent Death Switch.  Simple concept: you create and assign digital archives to go to certain people.  You get periodic emails from the service to ensure you’re still alive.  If you don’t reply, the switch gets flipped and the messages and archives get sent out.  You control your last words to whoever you want, the last message you leave in their memories.  It’s the idea that launched a thousand sci-fi short stories, functioning in the present day [the sample correspondence, highlighting the service’s usefulness, is fascinating].

We spend all this time cultivating the brand of who we are online.  It’s what we’re constantly told, build the brand, get out there.  My own output is paltry compared to the tsunami of digital product put out by the more whoreish social media types I cross paths with, all in the name of creating the perfect version ourselves while we’re breathing, with little consideration for what could happen to it once we stop.

I mean, I make an effort [small] to present myself with a certain level of sophistication [also small].  Imagine my horror to discover one of my old blogs, left by the side of the superhighway, did not cyberdegrade into dust but is perfectly preserved, ready for perusing by anyone who wants to know what was going on in the head of a twentysomething editor at an alt-weekly who never got laid and still lived at home?  And what do I do about it? Leave it open as is?  And let anyone who discovers it use my naked baby pictures however they want, with my dead ass unable to do anything about it?  Not likely.  Purge it completely?  Writers are natural hoarders, we can’t bear to discard anything we’ve blessed with our limited genius.  What then, archive it?  How to do that reliably?  Data is much more fragile than we think.

I don’t have the answers, friends.  Neither does Rob Walker, who wrote the piece, nor any of the people he interviewed.  As the Internet further entrenches itself in our lives, we’re all going to have to weigh the benefits of exposure against the value of legacy.

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