Your Electronic Legacy: Whose Memorial is it?

by J. Malec

Image: No known copyright. Taken from The Internet Archive Book 

For most Americans today, family life is archived digitally and shared publicly online. But few Americans have provided for the care and protection of volumes of personal digital data.

When you pass, who will have access to your emails, photographs, financial records and online profiles? Is there information that needs to be retrieved and archived for friends and family or for a business partner? Perhaps it is important to designate an executor for electronic affairs. It might also be prudent to prepare a supplement to a Will that addresses digital legacy planning.

Internet Memorial Management

We've often written about how cremation is on the rise. In our business we have witnessed how the need for memorial urns and keepsakes for ashes shapes the field of ash containers and affordable cremation urns to memorialize the deceased. In parallel to that we can't help but notice how technology relating to the afterlife is also taking shape.

One out of three Americans has prepared a Will. Even if you are one of those select one-third, have you thought about planning for your digital afterlife?

The entrepreneurs working on the digital beyond are young, only in the 20 and 30-age range. This makes sense given that the use of technology for personal purposes exploded as recently as the 1990’s. But it is the grandparents and parents of the 20 and 30-year olds who are setting precedents in this arena. They are defining how personal data should be preserved and distributed, how to implement services to protect and access personal data, and what the future of the field will look like. The surface has only recently been scratched. We’ve hardly begun asking important questions like what it all means in terms of remembrance, cyber-immortality and our humanity as a whole.

How to Plan for Your Digital Legacy

Evan Carroll and John Romano are founders of The Digital Beyond, an online forum on the subject of digital legacy planning. They recently published a book considered to be the first primer on the subject: Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy? They recommend that online account information be stored separately from a Will, as the latter will become public record. It isn’t recommended that profile passwords and other account information be available to the public.

The many different digital platforms add another layer of complexity. In a 2011 NPR article, Carroll states: "There's no one way that all of these service providers act. So Yahoo has their policy, Facebook has their policy, Twitter has their policy and none of the policies are the same — which makes it really confusing for the average person to figure all of this out."

Like The Digital Beyond, Internet archiving services are popping up. They promise to steward your digital legacy, send messages from beyond the grave or release digitally stored legal documents automatically upon your passing. The largest player, Legacy Locker, boasts around 10,000 unique clients for its digital-estate-management services. Rivals include DataInherit and Entrustet of Madison, Wisconsin. In May of 2014, these competitors organized the first ever “Digital Death Day” conference in San Francisco to raise awareness of digital legacy planning and to network with death-industry professionals. Websites such as Death and Digital Legacy collect and share stories about legal and personal struggles around digital legacy planning. These websites are a great resource for gaining perspective on the far-reaching implications.

When Does my Digital Self Expire?

Businesses like the ones mentioned above rely on the continued use of web, mobile and social-media technology. Since we can’t predict how technology will evolve, we also can’t say if data archived now will be retrievable in the future. The issue is analogous to trying to convert old photographic prints to digital media — each document must be scanned individually. Will fees collected now for these services cover the cost of data conversion indefinitely? What will happen to the aggregate data documenting your life if you aren’t there to edit it into a presentation that speaks to how you want to be remembered?

If shared profiles and images are put out into the ether for all to experience, do they really belong to the family alone to make decisions about? Or have they transcended personal possession and moved into the realm of collective memory and ownership? Facebook profiles have long had a feature that allows an executor to switch the account into a memorial mode, where messages from friends and loved ones can be shared and archived indefinitely.

Love it or hate it, in the 21st century our grief is more often expressed digitally and replaces location-based memorials. We might begin considering how or if to preserve our digital “self.”

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city. 

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