This five person panel at SXSW Interactive 2011 tackled a broad range of issues related to what happens to our online presence, assets, creations and identity after our death.
- Adele McAlear author of Death and Digital Legacy
- Dazza Greenwood author of Civics.com
- Evan Carroll and John Romano, co-authors of Your Digital Afterlife
- Jesse Davis cofounder of Entrustet
There was a lot to take in here. You can listen to the full audio of the session or watch a recording of the session’s live stream (the first few minutes of the stream lacks audio).
A quick and easy place to start is this lovely little video created as part of the promotion of Your Digital Afterlife – it gives a nice quick overview of the topic:
Also take a look at the Visual Map that was drawn by Ryan Robinson during the session – it is amazing! Rather than attempt to recap the entire session, I am going to just highlight the bits that most caught my attention:
Laws, Policies and Planning
Currently individuals are left reading the fine print and hunting for service specific policies regarding access to digital content after the death of the original account holder. Oklahoma recently passed a law that permits estate executors to access the online accounts of the recently deceased – the first and only state in the US to have such a law. It was pointed out during the session that in all other states, leaving your passwords to your loved ones is you asking them to impersonate you after your death.
Facebook has an online form to report a deceased person’s account – but little indication of what this action will do to the account. Google’s policy for accessing a deceased person’s email requires six steps, including mailing paper documents to Mountain View, CA.
There is a working group forming to create model terms of service – you can add your name to the list of those interested in joining at the bottom of this page.
What Does Ownership Mean?
What is the status of an individual email or digital photo? Is it private property? I don’t recall who mentioned it – but I love the notion of a tribe or family unit owning digital content. It makes sense to me that the digital model parallel the real world. When my family buys a new music CD, our family owns it – not the individual who happened to go to the store that day. It makes sense that an MP3 purchased by any member of my family would belong to our family. I want to be able to buy a Kindle for my family and know that my son can inherit my collection of e-books the same way he can inherit the books on my bookcase.
Remembering Those Who Have Passed
How does the web change the way we mourn and memorialize people? Many have now had the experience of learning of the passing of a loved one online – the process of sorting through loss in the virtual town square of Facebook. How does our identity transform after we are gone? Who is entitled to tag us in a photo?
My family suffered a tragic loss in 2009 and my reaction was to create a website dedicated to preserving memories of my cousin. At the Casey Feldman Memories site, her friends and family can contribute memories about her. As the site evolved, we also added a section to preserve her writing (she was a journalism student) – I kept imagining the day when we realized that we could no longer access her published articles online. I built the site using Omeka and I know that we have control over all the stories and photos and articles stored within the database.
It will be interesting to watch as services such as Chronicle of Life spring up claiming to help you “Save your memories FOREVER!”. They carefully explain why they are a trustworthy digital repository and why they backup their claims with a money-back guarantee.
For as little as $10, you can preserve your life story or daily journal forever: It allows you to store 1,000 pages of text, enough for your complete autobiography. For the same amount, you could also preserve less text, but up to 10 of your most important photos. – Chronicle of Life Pricing
There are also some interesting questions about privacy and the rights of those who have passed to keep their secrets. Facebook currently deletes some parts of a profile when it converts it to a ‘memorial’ profile. They state that this is for the privacy of the original account holder. If users are ultimately given more power over the disposition of their social web presence – should these same choices be respected by archivists? Or would these choices need to be respected the way any other private information is guarded until some distant time after which it would then be made available?
Thanks again to all the presenters – this really was one of the best sessions for me at SXSWi! I loved that it got a whole different community of people thinking about digital preservation from a personal point of view. You may also want to read about Digital Death Day – one coming up in May 2011 in the San Francisco Bay Area and another in September 2011 in the Netherlands.
Image credit: Excerpt from Ryan Robinson’s Visual Map created live during the SXSW session.
Great overview of the panel! I wanted to add another piece to the discussion: company policies and how big of a problem this already is for them.
Most companies don’t have any policy on what to do with digital assets when someone dies and the ones that do don’t have any way to verify that someone in fact is dead. For example, three facebook users die every single minute, and Facebook has no idea who they are or what they wanted done with their profiles! It’s almost 1.75m people every year! I think company policies will be one of the most interesting areas that change because of how we are currently using the internet.
Thank you so much for the excellent re-cap of our session at SXSW. I am so pleased that you connected with our message. 🙂
I know facebook will delete an account if an immediate family member contacts them with ‘proof’ of the death.
In the case of my cousin, we included a news article about his death. I guess an obit would work too.
If you are not a close relative or just a friend you can have the account locked so that, though it can be seen still, no one can post on the wall etc.
They were actually very quick to assist his sister in closing the account.
Comments are closed.