We Really Need to Talk About Digital Death
As we all die, the internet is going to be taken over by our ghosts.
You might have thought about what will happen to your Facebook profile or blog when you die, and maybe even toyed with the idea of passing them on after you're gone. But what about that old OkCupid account you don't want people snooping around in, or the Pornhub subscription you'd rather died with you?
Over the last few years a number of companies have popped up to help people manage "digital legacies." These companies work as repositories for their customers' usernames and passwords; when you pass away, they'll try to make sure your loved ones get hold of your latent digital assets, like emails, social network profiles, or e-commerce accounts.
But some also offer the possibility to close down the accounts that you don't wish to pass on to your loved ones.
"Like with a real legacy, you can decide who will receive each digital asset, or you can just mark the things you don't want your family to access, and your legacy executor will take the steps to remove them," Paul Golding, CEO of UK-based digital legacy company Cirrus, told me on the phone.
One of the pioneer ventures in the field, Entrustet, which was acquired in 2012 by the security corporation SecureSafe, introduced what it dubbed the "Account Incinerator" to achieve the same goal.
Its founder, Wisconsin student Jesse Davis, suggested that people who were subscribed to websites such as Ashley Madison, the dating community for those already in a relationship, might want to delete any trace of their activity there to avoid inflicting further post-mortem pain on their better halves.
Yet digital executors are still the reserve of early adopters or tech geeks. One company, Legacy Locker, claimed to have about 10,000 subscribers in 2011. Not bad, but that's just a drop in the ocean compared to Facebook, which now has a self-reported 829 million daily users—thousands of which die every day.
For those of us who don't leave behind some sort of digital will, what happens to our posthumous cyber-lives will largely depend on what other people decide to do with them.
Among social networks, Facebook perhaps has the most defined "death policy," but it also seems the most steadfast in privileging post-death persistence over after-life oblivion. When a user dies, family members can ask Facebook to remove the profile by presenting documentation such as a death certificate. Alternatively, they will transform the profile into a memorial page for e-mourning of the lost loved one.
This feature may end up radically changing Mark Zuckerberg's social network: the website What If estimated that, all things being equal, dead users (among memorialised and non-removed dead people's pages) will surpass live ones by the 2060s or mid-2100s, depending on how long the site stays popular.
Twitter and LinkedIn have similar policies: they don't provide memorialisation, but they'll remove the profiles at the request of a friend, relative, or colleague of the deceased user. (You may resolve to keep tweeting from the grave via applications like LIVESON, but that's another story.)
Google offers users some control over the thorny issue of digital death by dint of a feature called Inactive Manager Account. By activating it, users can decide that their account will be shut down or transferred to a trusted person after a given period of time.
Pretty much all the other systems hinge on the premise that somebody else will reach out to give dead avatars a deserved burial. That may not always be possible, for example if the dead user's family don't know they hold certain accounts, or aren't tech-savvy enough to deal with them.
The accounts of dead people are therefore likely to keep existing, silent, in a digital limbo.
Facebook is only ten years old, and its persistence 50 years from now can't be taken for granted, even if your late presence is clinging on.
Rather than major social networks, it's likely that more specific digital venues will risk becoming virtual cemeteries in the long run, as families are probably less likely to know that their relatives are subscribed to them. And sometimes the ghosts will stick around where you least expect.
Take video games. In June, a YouTube commenter shared a moving story about accidentally stumbling on his deceased father while playing a rally game on Xbox: every time that he raced, the "ghost car" of his dad (who had established a record time), would drive alongside him.
If you consider the fact that many MMORPG games don't delete players' avatars even after years of inactivity, it leaves the door open for a scenario where legions of virtual personas could outlive their flesh-and-blood creators.
But while it might be tricky to make sure your digital self dies with you, there's another thing to take into consideration: It's unlikely that most of the websites and social media we're talking about will survive for that long. Facebook is only ten years old, and its persistence 50 years from now can't be taken for granted, even if your late presence is clinging on.
And that may in fact be the bigger problem. While you may worry about leaving certain traces, historians are concerned that the data we store in social networks may be destroyed in the perpetual creation/destruction cycle that characterizes the digital era. This could wind up depriving future researchers of key information to make sense of our age.
So even if you hope for your digital self to die once and for all, others may be rushing to preserve the breadcrumbs of data that said something about your digital life.