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  1. Told you I was ill: all about digital death

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    You’re dead, your data isn’t: what happens now?
    14 March 2011, 9.30am
    4 / 5

    Digital technology is changing the way we live and changing the way we die. Digital death probably isn’t high up the development list for Facebook, but what happens when a user dies? Who has access to that information? What should remain up and what taken down? In various examples in the introduction by John Romano of Digital Beyond, the family of one soldier were refused access to his email by Yahoo, one blogger’s family insisted on deleting her entire body of work after her death though her fans pleaded against it, and one man tried to wrest control of his dead wife’s Facebook account from abusive commenters. 

    • Jesse Davis, a lively entrepreneur who founded the ‘digital death’ service Entrustet, was blunt. “One day we all buy the farm. We’ll leave behind a mountain of data and mixed in with junk about stuff we’ve sold on eBay will be photos of our kids’ piano recitals. We need a way to deal with this.” Consultant Adele McAlear painted a picture of  fragile web. “Link rot alone means things will not live forever… Internet Archive will not save you.” When we invest time and money online, we should think about who could and should have access to that after we die, which communities should be notified and who in our family we should entrust with that responsibility so that we “safeguard our digital legacy”. “Some people don’t care what’s left behind and that’s fine too, but if you do you need to take action like telling a significant other.” The physical life of media also needs to be considered; a photo collection kept on CD won’t last much more than five years, a hard drive three years - and then there’s file formats that can become obsolete.

    • Davis explained that the funeral services industry in the digital space is booming, from digit estate planning to memorialisation, online obituaries to digital property reports and searches. There are around 40 startups in this space - including some quirkier sites that let you decide how to ‘haunt’ those you leave behind, or plan your last tweet. Grieving is one of the fastest growing of these sites, providing spaces for a community to remember someone. 

    • Accounts connected to a credit card will expire, like a Pro Flickr account, and we should also consider how spaces like Facebook are important because they provide a space for friends and family that is now part of the grieving process. There’s little consistency in how large firms deal with ‘dead’ accounts; Yahoo and Facebook both mention death in their terms of service, but these companies also operate under California state law though they provide an international service, while Apple deals with enquiries on a case-by-case basis according to the local law of the person concerned. Google has a seven-step death reporting process that involves printing and posting documentation: “This is the same Google,” said Davis, “that taught a car how to drive itself.” Facebook’s death reporting process uses a form that asks for a URL to an obituary or memorial page as proof of death, which means anyone outside the family can take control of a dead person’s Facebook page. “That lacks the desired intent for a dead person to say what should happen,” said Evan Carroll of Digital Beyond. “Where going to a funeral service is a single, fixed time and place to remember someone, Facebook walls continue to be a place to remember.” 

    • Oklahoma, strategist Dazza Greenwood noted, now has a law that passes control of social media accounts to the legal executor. “There needs to be an informal working group that starts to develop models to deal with some of these key questions, and present this to social networks as an example of something user-centred that can be standardised. Consumers need to know what to expect, like what happens to your account and how control is designated, and there’s also those issues around verification of death. He added that if the wealthy are physically remembered with lavish mausoleums, what is the digital equivalent of that? “Look at the way society has dealt with war veterans, for example, so that they get a respectful burial even if they have no cash. Should we have subsidised server farms where everyone can partake in the digital heritage of society?”

    • If each of us lifeblogged, we could produce 20 petabytes of information in a lifetime, can we really expect that all to be keep forever? “Individuals need to begin to curate their content,” said Carroll. If you take hundreds of photos in a trip, maybe only keep the best 10. “We’re in danger of leaving an ever-increasing pile of digital crap for future generations to deal with. We need to curate our legacy so we’ll be remembered in the way we want to be.” What does digital death need? Maybe a killer app to help us manage all these implications…

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      from our own jemimakiss & Robbie Clutton, reporting on the Digital Death panel at SxSWi
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Jemima Kiss is a media reporter for the Guardian and Robbie Clutton is a software developer for the Guardian. Find our full coverage of SXSW 2011 at

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