Before the Internet, property was a physical object in the physical world. Movies were on video and DVD. Photographs were stored in real photo albums. Diaries, letters and personal mementos were kept in a box somewhere.
Now, photographs go to Flickr, personal movies are on YouTube, blogs have replaced diaries and the number of headshots scored in Halo could be considered a personal memento by some.
Online presence has a large impact in real-world social and professional lives. We now bank online, shop online, date online and work online.
But what happens to our digital footprint when we die? In the physical world, a will instructs friends and family what to do with money and assets. But online lives and their impact may not be taken into account.
Adele McAlear, a Montreal-based marketing consultant who runs www.DeathandDigitalLegacy.com, advocates appointing a digital executor to take care of online assets after death.
“There’s sentimental value with a lot of what we have online,” says McAlear. “It’s something young people should absolutely think about, considering how digital and online everyone is these days.”
Speaking at Podcamp, held at Ryerson on Feb. 27, McAlear showed different ways to make plans for digital remains, such as saving information in a text document.
McAlear also suggests creating a special Gmail account where users can send passwords, letters, photos and videos. The account would be opened by a friend, family member or lawyer upon death.
“It’s not uncommon for family or friends to go into someone’s online accounts and delete everything, which could be contrary to the deceased’s actual wishes,” she says.
“It’s a real issue for a lot of people,” says online journalism instructor Wayne MacPhail. “Some people make a living working online.”
MacPhail, who also advises different groups about social media and up-and-coming technologies, says he has spent the last few months thinking about the fate of his vast online presence.
“If something were to happen to me as I crossed the street, my wife wouldn’t know what to do with the things I have online. She would have no control over them,” he says.
“We really do cram a lot of our lives on the Internet,” says Ryan Oliver, a fourth-year theatre production student. “In some ways, Facebook does a better job at showing who you are than a résumé.”
Facebook allows the account of a deceased person to be made into a memorial account, which removes contact information and statuses and disables log-in ability. Only confirmed friends would be able to view the profile. A close family member has to send Facebook proof of death before any action can be taken.
“I haven’t really thought about it, and I don’t really care,” says Oliver. However, he plays the online role-playing game World of Warcraft and says it would be nice to either give his character to someone else or have it deleted permanently.
“Yeah, and maybe get someone to delete my Facebook, too. I don’t care, though,” he says. “I’ll be dead.”
MacPhail is not surprised students have not started thinking about their online assets after death. “Especially for an 18 or 19 year old, a person might not have a lot of practical applications beyond Facebook party pictures.”
“But some of that might be sentimental to a girlfriend or family. It could be emotionally devastating to someone when they suddenly don’t have access or control to maintain that property.”
There are also a number of companies that specialize in holding on to digital information until death. Websites like Legacy Locker and Entrustet work the same way as McAlear’s Gmail system, but with the added bonus of a team of people providing security to protect your account. However, these websites can charge annual fees and there is no guarantee the companies will outlive you.
“It’s just so overwhelming for us to start planning for death,” says Oliver. “I’m still in school. I don’t really think about death.”