Quick, what do William Shakespeare and Jane Austen have in common? Besides remaining wildly popular, both authors died well over a century ago?and that means their works are now in the public domain. Most writers leave clear instructions for their literary legacy, but what will become of yours? Who will control the musings in your online profiles when you one day join William and Jane in the afterlife?
From the serious to the silly, your blogs and status updates can form a surprisingly large written record. Most of us haven’t given any thought to what will happen to that record when we die. Will one family member memorialize our Facebook profile, while another wants to delete it? And what do various policies say about other people’s profiles that mention you?
Even if you haven’t thought about those questions, plenty of others have. In fact, the importance of these new digital dilemmas has given rise to the creation of Digital Death Day, held each May since 2010. The Digital Death Day site and conferences discuss, and try to find answers to, this main issue: Where does your data go when you die?
Among the questions the organizers ask are these: How can I inform my online friends of my death and share with them my final messages? How can I be sure that big companies (like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft) will respect my wishes? What are the policies for email accounts and social websites when you die?
One of the people talking about those questions is Adele McAlear, a consultant based in Montreal. She runs a site called Death and Digital Legacy, and her expertise has been featured in print and online media around the world, from The Wall Street Journal to Kulturaustausch, a ?respected German-language journal for international cultural perspectives.?
A quick look at her blog posts shows just how global these concerns have become. In Nebraska, lawmakers have proposed legislation ?to allow next of kin to control digital accounts after a user has passed away.? (Several other states, including Idaho and Connecticut, already have similar legislation.) And in Vancouver, long-time blogger (among many talents) Derek K. Miller prepared a final post for his Penmachine blog?one that was posted only after his death in 2011.
Some solutions can already be found on social media sites themselves. Google has a fairly straightforward policy titled ?Accessing a deceased person’s mail? (you’ve got to give them credit for making that easily searchable). Facebook has a form that lets people report a deceased person’s profile, and Twitter’s Help Center now has a policy to deactivate a deceased user’s account. Still, the legal questions surrounding who has the authority to do so can remain frustratingly murky.
don’t want to bother reading all that fine print? It won’t solve the problem of who owns your posts, but a Facebook app called If I Die allows you to create your final status update, then choose three trusted friends who will notify Facebook upon your death?and arrange for your final update to be posted.
Still other folks are showing us that the question of written records is only the tip of the digital legacy iceberg. A TED Talk by Adam Ostrow, ?After Your Final Status Update,? not only asks the above questions but takes things even further. As Ostrow points out, it may soon become possible ?for our digital personas to continue to interact in the real world long after we’re gone.?
In his TED clip, he poses that very real possibility: MIt’s media lab is working on robots that, more and more, can interact like humans. ?But what if,? he asks, ?those robots were able to interact based on the unique characteristics of a specific person, based on the hundreds of thousands of pieces of content that that person produces in our lifetime??
When such robots become as common as, say, smart phones are today, will the friend or relative who owns your digital legacy be able to feed that data into a digital you?
One experiment in this vein is a Twitter app called That Can Be My Next Tweet! The app analyzes a person’s entire history of Tweets, then creates new Tweets based on their combined stream. You can try it on the site by typing in your Twitter name; the results range from the comical to the surprisingly coherent.
Though these are purely 21st-century questions, I can’t help wondering what the Bard would think of his words being randomly mashed together in a posthumous Twitter stream. To be, or not to be, indeed.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).