Death and Your Digital Posterity

You are going to die.

It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. But it is going to happen. We may not know when exactly you’ll succumb to the Reaper, but eventually the bell will toll for thee. Then, presumably, those left among the living will be tasked with handling the aftermath.

It’s likely you’ll have left some physical remnants behind – some furniture, maybe a few books, your prized peanut butter jar collection, whatever. We as a species have had some experience with death over the centuries, so the process of dealing with all that stuff is pretty well defined by now. But what about your digital life?

For most survivors, coping with the physical possessions and conventional assets of the departed can be overwhelming enough, but at least there are parameters and precedents. Even if a houseful of objects is liquidated through an estate sale or simply junked, mechanisms exist to ensure some sort of definitive outcome, even in the absence of a will. And there’s no way of ignoring or forgetting it: eventually the stuff will have to be dealt with.

Bit-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about. They may be uncertain to the point of inaction about how to approach the problem at all.

Cyberspace When You’re Dead by Rob Walker, for The New York Times. You should really read that article – it’s quite good.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, we started sorting through the various papers and effects she left behind. Among them was a fairly well-documented family tree dating back a couple hundred years, along with a handful of newspaper clippings about this family member or that. But none of it really gives a sense of who those people were, no sense of what their lives encompassed. All those moments have been lost in time, like tears in rain.

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Own Your Data

A partial reconstruction of a discussion between Jeffrey Zeldman, Tantek Çelik, and a few others on the merits of self-hosting social content and publishing to various sites rather than aggregating locally from external sources.

I’ve been following discussions like this with some interest lately. Jeremy Keith posted a piece on his decision to self-host his bookmarks and cross-post to Delicious, rather than enter them in Delicious first and rely on their API to get his data out. Stephen Hay wrote a similar post on a shift in the way we post and consume content given the plethora of social content-sharing sites in existence today:

For a while we’ve posted our data all over the internet on all types of services. These services provide APIs so we can access the data we put into them, so that we can do things with that data. Read that again.

The prime example of all this lately is the social bookmarking site Delicious. In December 2010, a slide leaked from a Yahoo meeting indicated that Delicious was to be shut down. People on Twitter and elsewhere on the web collectively freaked out. Some people had thousands of bookmarks that would seemingly be gone, lost forever at the whim of Yahoo. People started to wonder if someone should instead build an open-source version of Delicious, and others pointed out how extraordinarily hard that would be. The end result being, people are starting to realize just how frail our data is. We post photos, articles, tweets, and whatever else we want, to lots of different sites, but we don’t actually have control over that data once we hit “post.”

So is it better to self-host your content and push that data out to separate services, or post directly to those services and pull your content into local backups after the fact? I don’t have that answer. But I did find this exchange on Twitter to be quite fascinating, and wanted to have some sort of linear record of it for posterity.

Update (Jan 10): Jeffrey Zeldman expounded on his thoughts from yesterday in a post on his own site:

We can’t preserve social relationships connected to our data. I can save my photos but not nice things you said about them.

Own Your Data on

Update 2 (Jan 10): Tantek has posted his own follow-up as well:

I’d rather host my data and live with such awkwardness in the open than be a sharecropper on so many beautiful social content farms.

On Owning Your Data on