Contemplating the digital afterlife
It's not news to say computing and the Internet have changed the way we live –but has it changed the way we die?
As more of our lives are spent online and more of our memories are "born" digital –JPG photos never printed, blog posts never put to paper –conversation, consideration, and even a burgeoning industry are springing up to address what happens to our online presence when we pass.
"When we first started writing, we didn't know what to call this subject, and through some of our writing and contributions from others, we decided that 'digital afterlife' is the term," says Evan Carroll, who along with John Romano writes a blog called The Digital Beyond.
While still a nascent, complicated subject, it can roughly be divided into two main categories: estate planning, which encompasses the instructions on what's to be done with blogs, photos, and e-mail and social media accounts when someone dies, and memorials, which may often be the result of those instructions. For instance, do you want your Facebook profile to transition into a memorial page, an option the social media site currently offers? Do you want to write or record messages to share with loved ones, a service now provided by several companies online?
Tackling the estate-planning question is SheGeeks blogger Corvida Raven, who will moderate a core conversation on the planning and legal aspects of digital estate planning and digital wills. "We're putting more stuff on Facebook; we're putting more stuff out on the Web, up in the cloud" she says. "A lot of us didn't have printers, because we're like, 'Why are we printing things when we can just e-mail it or show it to someone on our phones?'"
"The first step people should take is identifying the assets that they have," Carroll says. Once cataloged and documented in a digital will that specifies what's to happen to the content, the departed's wishes can then be acted upon by a designated "digital executor" –"someone that comes after you and closes accounts, transfers accounts, controls access, deals with these things," says Romano.
"We've never had these abilities before," says Romano. "You had to be a pharaoh to have a pyramid. You had to be an emperor of China to have your clay army. But we have this opportunity now to document people's lives after they're gone."
There's also work afoot online to ensure lives don't end before they're supposed to. Christopher Gandin Le has worked in the field of suicide prevention for seven years, recently helping to run the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. One thing Gandin Le learned was that "young people especially aren't calling the hotline. ... We know there's a giant disconnect between the help that's available and the help that's needed. What my group has been working on is making sure that that gap is filled."
To that end, Gandin Le founded a firm, Emotion Technology, to create online responses and resources for the suicidal. "What we're doing is working with social networking sites to create more linkages, to make sure tools are available. So that if I'm on Twitter or I'm on Facebook and I see that my friend or someone I know is possibly suicidal, that I have a direct way to reach out and either give them help, or at least get the help to them through the social networking site."
Right now, Gandin Le concedes, ways to help are pretty limited. "That's what we're working on, is to make sure that on Facebook or on Twitter those policies are in place, so if users report there's a problem, we are able to save lives." This could take the form of alerting local authorities, or "online crisis counseling, where users will be able to click on a link and get help immediately." If there's one thing people like Gandin Le and digital afterlife planners have in common, it's working on a standardization of responses from social network companies so the response process will be streamlined when threats are made –potentially saving lives in the process. "One thing I hear a lot," Gandin Le says of suicidal posts, "is, 'Oh, this person's just making a cry for help.' Well yeah, exactly, so let's get them help!"
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