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.

None of those people had Facebook accounts. Twitter streams. Blogs. Tumblrs. Flickr. GMail. Judging by the quality of the photos, they had Instagram, but it was called “scrapbooking” and the only web interface was left by spiders in the attic. Dark days indeed. But hark, we live in the bright shiny future, where many of us have all these things – but really we don’t have any of these things. There’s nothing we can touch or hold or put in a shoebox for someone to dig through later. Whereas a shoebox full of old love notes and artsy photos may likely be discovered by someone going through our physical space, a Twitter stream or Flickr account floating in “the cloud” might be entirely unknown to them.

There was an excellent panel at SXSWi 2011 titled “You’re Dead, Your Data Isn’t: What Happens Now?” in which the panelists discussed this topic.

Anything online that you pay for will stop once you stop paying the bills: Flickr accounts, domain registrations, everything. Most sites right now don’t have a field for “what do you want to happen once you die?” – it’s creepy and people don’t want to think about it. We’re invincible!

While I have no intentions of shuffling off this mortal coil anytime soon, the reality is that I could be hit by a bus, or have some deadly medical condition no one’s ever heard of, or aliens might obliterate my house from space. It could happen. So what can we do to help our friends and family sort through whatever’s left of our lives afterward? (There are businesses springing up to let you designate who should get your Facebook password and so on, though they don’t particularly interest me at this point.)

So there are two aspects to address: one is the handling of your information immediately after you take your last breath, and the other is the preservation of your identity for the future. One helps people sort through your life right now, the other will theoretically help people piece it back together years from now.

For now I don’t have any good answers for the best way to do this. It’ll be different for everyone. Here’s what I do know:

  • Important documents like my birth certificate, car title and registration, insurance papers and driver’s license have been scanned to high-resolution PDFs, which are kept on an encrypted flash drive.
  • Paper copies of all these documents will be given to my family and kept in fire-proof safes.
  • I’m working on a document explaining what to do with my various online accounts. That document is still a very rough draft at this point, mostly because I don’t really know what should happen to them.
    • My Twitter account (@tomhenrich) will probably be shut down.
    • My Facebook account will probably be memorialized.
    • My LinkedIn profile should be deleted. The job market’s pretty thin for a dead person.
    • What about this website? Unless I get some tips from Tupac, I don’t intend to keep releasing content once I’m gone, and my family shouldn’t need to pay to keep my hosting account active. I imagine it’ll be shut down.
  • Every document I create is kept in .txt format to future-proof the information as best as possible. No one needs to install special software to open .txt files, and the format is rather resilient in the face of time. They’re also easier to maintain than PDFs or stone tablets.

The rest I’ll learn as I go. What information is worth keeping? What should fall by the digital wayside? I don’t know yet. If you have suggestions, please speak up. I hope to post occasional updates here as I learn more and make progress.