People die. People are born into this world, they do things, and then they die. It’s been true throughout the course of history, and there’s a reasonably high probability that it will hold true for me, and for everyone reading this blog.
Sound morbid? Well, it is (my next post will be more cheerful, I promise!), but it also raises several interesting questions. What happens to our online lives when we die? Should our digital selves expire when our bodies do, or should they be preserved for future generations? If they should be preserved, should it be in their entirety, or should only our most useful and/or artistic contributions be retained?
In a recent New York Times article titled “Cyberspace When You’re Dead” (hat tip: Dave Winer), columnist Rob Walker writes about this issue in detail. An estimated 375,000 US Facebook users die every year. That’s over a quarter of a million digital identities lost every year for just one country on just one Web site. What about all the non-American Facebook users? What about all the photos on Flickr, the tweets on Twitter, and the countless other bits and pieces of data scattered about the Web?
In some cases, it might seem that no special preparation is needed for one’s digital death. The Times article recounts the story of prolific blogger Mac Tonnies. When he died, friends and acquaintances (many of whom he’d never met in person) set about carefully preserving and cataloging the various pieces of digital content he’d produced during his life. Yet even so, much of his work has been lost, at least temporarily, or fallen into disrepair. When his Flickr pro account expired, many of his photos on the service were locked away from public viewing. His Blogger blog has been infiltrated by comment spam. No one knows the passwords he used for either of these sites, so even his most dedicated fans are powerless to resurrect his Flickr account or clean up the spam on his blog posts.
The solution, some maintain, lies in what blogging pioneer Dave Winer calls future-safe archives—storehouses of data designed to preserve it indefinitely after its author dies. Several companies (like Legacy Locker, which bills itself as “a safe, secure repository for your vital digital property”) now offer help in this area, promising to preserve a user’s online content—after deleting parts of it, if that’s what the user desires—after their death. These services, however, face many social, legal, and technological hurdles.
But perhaps the biggest enemies to the preservation of many people’s online personas are the people themselves. The rate at which content is added to the Internet continues to increase, but the vast majority of Internet denizens are still apathetic to the ultimate fate of their online content. Furthermore, many (perhaps rightly so) view their online content as a sort of “digital litter” not worthy of preservation. This raises yet another fundamental conflict: Preserve too much of people’s digital content, and their meaning of their lives might get buried among tweets about lunch and funny pictures of cats; preserve too little, and perhaps the very content which would have touched future generations the most will be lost forever.
Doubtless these issues will all be resolved someday, just as the will and the estate have solved many of the issues surrounding people’s physical property after death. Until then, it will fall on forward thinkers and digital preservationists to raise awareness of the digital manifestation of death and its potentially crippling effects on human legacy.