My dear cousin died last year. She was a mother of four, only 44 years old. She loved playing Farmville and Bejeweled Blitz when logged on Facebook and I remember seeing her score every day on my profile page. Now she’s gone, but her profile page remained and that made me ask myself - what happens to our digital life after we are gone?
Some of the most valuable things we leave for the next generation are our momentos. Tweny years ago you could find them all over your house. But things have changed in a big way. You are now participating in a culture that is fast becoming all digital.
Before computers, people used to collect their memorabilia in their home-letters in shoe boxes, diaries (with a key lock on the front), stacks of videos and dvds, pictures in photo albums. Now your diary is a blog, your letters are tonnes of emails, your photos stored on Flickr album, favourite music on your I-Pod - this is what is called your “digital identity”. As a result, today’s photos, documents and letters are stored digitally. Your digital assets are on your mobile devices like smart phones and tablets, on your laptop stored on the Internet, in what we call the Cloud. Your videos might be on sites like You Tube or Vimeo, your email at Yahoo or Gmail, your social profile on Facebook or Twitter.
We are now participating in a culture that is fast and digital. Our collective conscious is bits and bytes. All that stuff amounts to a digital profile of sorts which raises an interesting question: What happens to that material when we die? Do our families have access to our email, precious photos or financial data? Are there any data that we prefer that nobody sees?
The problem is when you pass away, it could be a chore for your heirs to make sense of it all. Without awareness important assets and content might never be found. Then there is the issue of ownership: a website’s terms of service may prevent your content from transferring them to your heirs. In fact you might even not own your content. Lastly, there is the issue of preservation: over time file formats change.
According to the International Telecommunications Union report, Malta’s internet usage reached 59.1% of the population with 240,600 Internet users as of June 2010. There were 176,720 Facebook users as of August 2010, a penetration rate of 43.4%. The Maltese society is increasingly adapting itself to the digital world. Mobile telephony penetration rate reached 106.4%, up from 97.9% as at the end of June 2009. This means that digital users need to adopt awareness measures to safeguard their digital inheritance. And let’s face it, we are not immortal and, whether we like it or not, our digital trail is here to stay.
In their new book, Your Digital: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are your Estate, What’s your Legacy? - John Romano and Evan Carroll outline ways to protect your online legacy. The authors suggest that "It's worth considering that anything that's on the Internet and connected to your digital image does have potential to outlast you. What you put out there and what is put out there about you need to be in line with the image you want to portray."
Another tip they offer is to make sure you name a “digital executor” to handle all your digital belongings, so as your loved ones could preserve your data as you requested.
"It's very possible that the person who is handling your estate may not be the person who has the technical understanding to take care of your digital things," Romano says. "And there needs to be an important distinction there."
Carroll and Romano also suggest that it might be helpful to create an inventory of online accounts, to ensure your digital executor knows exactly what's most important.
The inventory does not have to be exhaustive. The authors’ advice is that it is better to start simply by writing those things you do not wish to get ‘lost’ like photos. But you should be careful of ownership and the website’s terms of service. Case in point is Flickr and Delicious, both owned by Yahoo. Items such as vlogs, blogs, emails, photos are non- transferable, so as it stands right now, the next-of-kin or digital executor should download the items first before advising Flickr to close the deceased user’s account.
Unfortunately there is no standardization of how these service providers act and it’s hard for digital consumers to understand. Twitter has adopted a notification method and a verification process, Facebook has created the memorialized profile, Yahoo has their policy, Google has another – which makes it really confusing for the average person to figure out all of this.
Seeing my late cousin’s birthday notified on Facebook caused me not only discomfort but a new surge of pain. For those who are living the digital lifestyle, it seems like this looming topic of dealing with death and online identity is not imminent. However, as you live an increasingly digital life, the collection you created grows. It is wrong to believe that it’s nothing more than just computer data. It’s a set of artifacts that has the potential to chronicle your life.
Here are some tips on how to manage your “digital inheritance”:
Your heirs can request that your account be deleted or “memorialized.” Memorialized profiles restrict profile access to confirmed friends, and allow friends and family to write on the user’s Wall in remembrance.
A new feature that allows you to “Download Your Information” This tool lets you download a copy of your photos, videos, wall posts, messages, friends list and other content. The file that you download can be opened in your browser so you can navigate through your content.
Gmail provides instructions for gaining access to deceased user’s account in its help documents. They outline the steps to gaining access, which include a death certificate, and email you have received from the account in question and proof that you have legal authority over the estate.
Twitter is unique in that they offer survivors an archive of the user’s public Tweets. That’s actually very helpful as it’s often difficult to archive a Twitter account yourself. In its help documents, family members can request assistance in saving a backup of their public Tweets.
Yahoo (which also owns services like Flickr and Delicious)
Yahoo takes a harsh stance on death, but the good news is that they will not take this action without the receipt of a death certificate. It’s possible for you to ask your digital executor to archive your Yahoo account contents before presenting Yahoo with a death certificate.