BEELINE TO THE FUTURE: Your Digital Afterlife

Robert Bee
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New York Times Magazine has a fascinating article “Cyberspace When You’re Dead” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/magazine/09Immortality-t.html).

The article’s first section addresses an increasingly important topic that many of us avoid thinking about: what will going to happen to our digital imprint after we die? According to the article, only 1/3 of Americans have a will. Most people find it depressing to think about their death and have not prepared for the disposition of their physical possessions, much less their digital afterlife. What’s going to happen to our Facebook page when we die? Our Twitters? Our websites and online writing?

Many people today post pictures of themselves and their children on Facebook for their friends and family. This type of online life is important and growing in significance, especially among the young. The pictures on Facebook and Flicker have sentimental value to a deceased person’s survivors, but without knowledge of their passwords the survivors may not be able to access the pictures.

The 2nd half of the Times article focuses on Mac Tonnies, an author and the prolific blogger of Posthuman Blues, who died unexpectedly at the age of 34. Tonnies had a small but devoted group of fans that were traumatized at his death. I’m not going to summarize the entire article, but several of his online friends have memorialized his writing, a rather fitting tribute for someone fascinated by the future and posthumanism. One reader backed up and saved his digital writings with the plan to eventually host them on a website; however, since no one knows the passwords that Tonnies left for his Flicker account or his blog, some information may be lost.

Digital estate services have cropped up in recent years, which store your passwords so your survivors can more easily handle the disposition of your digital estate. You can also leave them instructions. You could, for example, tell the service to delete your personal emails, but give your survivors access to your Flicker account.

The article does a good job pointing out the immense amount of personal information that many of us put online and how we are now facing new concerns, such as how to handle our digital death.

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In addition to being a staff writer here at Republibot, Robert Bee is a full-time librarian, and a freelance writer. You can email him directly at rightrob@republibot.com

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