The Digital Afterlife (Day 19)

We all have a digital footprint. If you have a Facebook page; an email address (or eight); photos on Flickr or Picasa; a blog (or three); are on LinkedIn or FriendFeed; or have signed up for any number of sites that you’ll visit only once, etc., etc., etc., then a digital footprint you have. Even 20 years ago, digital footprints were unknown. It didn’t matter what annoyed you at work that day or how your S.O.1 pissed you off by not doing the dishes, primarily because you wouldn’t run home and post it on your Facebook page or blog about it. Rather, you probably wrote about it in your journal that, once you kissed and made up, was promptly burned.

Way back before the earth cooled, some serious geniuses at the University of Minnesota created a hierarchical system called the gopher protocol (and for whose university mascot the system is named). One of the first true “indexing” systems, a gopher would organize and display files in a structural way, similar to a file folder as we know them today. Fast forward a few years, and, of course, thanksbe to Al Gore, the interweb was invented and rocked our world as we knew it. Today, once something is posted online, it’s there for eternity, or for as long as Google spiders are in existence2. When I’m tipsy tired, but write a blog post anyway, I can change the wording the next day, but the spiders would have already picked up the original file where it could be retrieved at any point. This is what the smrt geeks of the world unite and discuss — how to index the multitudinous profusion of content on the web.

The point of that Web 101 intro was not to educate you on how synapse A attaches to synapse B, but to ask the rhetorical, and very relevant, question of what happens to online content when someone dies or becomes incapacitated? Where does it go and how is it managed? NPR’s All Things Considered did a story in May about disputes that can arise over online assets and, since hearing that show, I’ve given some serious thought to my digital afterlife. How exactly *will* my “online estate” be handled upon my expiration? No one knows my passwords but big brother and me. No one has a clue about the overabundance of profiles I’ve established, how to access my online bank accounts, or what to do with my 15 email addresses. But mostly, what happens to my blog? Does it just live in infamy as it exists on any given day or would my family want to take it down? What would *I* want to happen to it once I’ve gone? Who would you want to have as your digital executors? Basically, how do you protect your online assets?

It’s an interesting conversation and one that probably isn’t yet considered very often when estate planning. The legal community is not necessarily on the cutting edge of technology3 and probably therefore doesn’t yet include online assets when creating wills, trusts, etc. Maybe they are, but I just haven’t heard about it — I’ll have to get my people4 to look into this, post haste. After doing some some cursory research, I found a few .coms who provide online estate planning, not surprisingly. The largest of these looks to be Legacy Locker5, a repository for digital property who you pay to manage your online assets in your absence. Your family members show proof of death and your wishes are their command — Aunt Sarah receives the password to close down your Facebook page; Mom and Dad receive the passwords to your bank accounts; and friend Cindyloowho gets the big prize…rights to manage your blog!

Oddly, Legacy Locker will even go so far as to create an “online memorial” for you. Online tombstone, anyone?!

 

1Significant Other
2 So pretty much for eternity.
3 I have a good friend who’s an attorney with a very large Houston firm and I understand that they still use LotusNotes. LotusNotes! And I thought my company was out of touch for using Outlook 2003.
4 By which I mean me.
5 I’m in no way endorsing Legacy Locker, as I have no idea who they are other than the top return when I searched Google for “online estate planning”. I saw another one called “Private Matters” which just made me think of adult diapers. Right?!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Digital Afterlife (Day 19)

  1. I heard that NPR story, too! I’ve actually thought about this as well. I think my boyfriend knows one of my passwords, but, hell, I barely know them.

    I should write all that stuff down and include it with my will, I guess… I don’t have anything worth paying a company to look after!

  2. Hi, this is Jeremy from Legacy Locker. Thanks for including us in your post, just wanted to correct one small thing:
    “Oddly, Legacy Locker will even go so far as to create an “online memorial” for you.”
    – Actually, we don’t do this at all. But Facebook will, whether you like it or not. Hence part of the reason people are using our site.
    Best,
    Jeremy

    • Hey Jeremy,
      Thanks for your note and the correction! I think the “other” company I referenced (Private Matters) does the online memorial, but nevertheless, I appreciate your comment.

      As for Facebook — well, that’s a whole other blog post!

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