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Online Life After Death

17 Jan

Originally posted 28 July 2009 @ Foviance.com

Recently I got back in touch with an old friend who had been trying to contact me via an email address I’d not used in years. This got me thinking about my online presence and just how many log ins I’ve created over the years:

8 online games, 8 webmail, 6 social networking, 6 BitTorrent, 6 clothing retailers, 6 government agencies, 6 gadget blogs, 4 online bookshops, 4 airlines reward schemes, 3 chat, 3 TV players, 2 bank accounts, 2 personal blogs, 2 photography forums, and at least a dozen other miscellaneous sites and companies from recipes to VOIP, movie rentals, travel cards, ticketing, reminders, mobile phones, money transfer and data storage. Around 80 or so, and those were just the ones I could remember.

When signing up, I never gave a thought as to how long I’d use these sites or services, or for how long they would remain active once I became bored with them and moved on to something newer and shinier. None of my accounts have a default lifespan or auto-cancellation after a period of non use (as far as I’m aware), and I imagine most sites would be unlikely to offer this function as they can continue to ‘on-sell’ their user list to marketers even if those users no longer frequent the site.

Thus the question arose: what happens to my online identity when I die? I imagine my loved ones will have enough on their hands cleaning up the mess I leave behind in the real world, but what will they make of my vastly more convoluted and sordid online affairs? And how do they go about informing the plethora of interested parties of my demise? Luckily, there are a number of sites which offer to do just that.

Legacy Locker is the most professional looking and visually calming of all the sites I came across, making plentiful use of the soft white clouds and blue sky colour scheme in their design. The service comes with tiered accounts, from free (store and send out 3 assets to one beneficiary, and one “legacy letter” (a farewell message to your loved one), up to the $30 annual account, which gives you unlimited everything.

The delightfully-named Death Switch is slightly more morbid in that it allows you to send out emails from beyond the grave, which is awesome!

The tag line of this site is “Bridging Mortality”. The design is sparse and somewhat “bloggy”; decidedly amateurish compared to the slick and professional Legacy Locker. The inspiration for setting up the site was the death of a father who left behind a black USB flash drive for his family with the names of those he wanted to be notified, including the administrator of an online gaming guild. The site creators seemingly have a taste for the macabre, suggesting to users that “unspeakable secrets” are but one of the things that can be passed on after their death. This, to me, is a fantastic idea and one I plan to take advantage of by making stuff up just to mess with people when I die.

The basic service is free and includes a single email. Paid accounts allows additional emails and attachments to multiple recipients. The site sends regular messages which, if the user fails to respond to enough of them in a row, triggers the spooky email. One giggles at the high jinks that would ensue if you went on vacation and forgot to cancel your death notice…

Speaking of slightly more morbid, Slightly Morbid sports a decidedly grim Grim Reaper as part of their logo in an apparent nod to the black humour of death. Unfortunately, this, and the accompanying amateurish design, merely smacks of a lack of compassion, something the majority of grieving relatives would be seeking, presumably.

The site is the brainchild of a couple who make software for online games who became worried when one of their online message board volunteers suddenly disappeared. He wasn’t dead: he just went on holiday for three months and didn’t tell anyone or go online for the whole time. At the most basic level, the site is a place to consolidate your personal online contacts. Users enter contact details for friends (online or otherwise) and the site generates a certificate with simple instructions for a trusted third party. Put the certificate with your important papers, or give it to whoever is designated to handle your affairs when you ’pass on’ and they can then use those instructions to send a notification message, or trigger messages you’ve written yourself.

Interestingly, Slightly Morbid offers military personnel a 20 percent discount: surely a cruel irony to be informed that your squad mate in Call of Duty 4 has been fragged in Iraq.

Clearly I’ve tapped in to the collective consciousness with this line of thought, as sci-fi author and BoingBoing co-editor Cory Doctrow was writing along similar, albeit more geeky, lines in his Guardian article, Tales from the Encrypt, although his proposed solution for protecting his data using encryption, relatives, attorneys and back-up attorneys is almost as complex as the cryptography used to encrypt it. The upshot of the column is that there is no easy answer to this but it is of vital importance to get on to it quickly before you are hit by a bus. The stress from analysing the pros and cons of all these numerous options threatens to give me an aneurysm!

Faced with such dilemmas, I fall back on the maxim of Ockham’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually the correct answer. I already have a will so I’ll follow Doctrow’s lead and encrypt the log in credentials to a less used webmail account, leaving half the key with my solicitor and the other half with my executor and most trusted friend. The key will decrypt the credentials and grant access to the webmail account which will contain an email message with instructions on how to find the hard copy of all the log in details to my numerous online accounts and memberships. I’m thinking this may take the form of a treasure map but I haven’t quite worked that part out yet. As macabre as it sounds, I’ve always liked the gothic romanticism of death, the mystery and spookiness surrounding it, so the idea of receiving a letter or email out of the blue which begins: “If you’re reading this then I am dead…” gives me shivers of delight.

Putting all Vincent Price impersonations aside, these sites do address a need, although they only really cover your virtual affairs and not any of the legal notifications required when one dies, such as bank accounts, credit cards, lawyers, relatives, executors, past loves, enemies etc. What would be cool is an online will of sorts, legally binding, which sent out all necessary notifications once you kicked it to a number of executors or organisations. I imagine there would be a host of legal implications preventing such a service, but no more insurmountable than those faced by the “Write Your Own Will Kit” inventors.

In all honesty, none of the sites mentioned above are any better than leaving a will with a lawyer, a written letter in a safe deposit box, or emailing trusted friends. On top of that, they’re a lot more expensive and they offer no greater guarantees of data security or longevity. If we put our usability hats on, it all gets back to first principles: what’s the core requirement, what problem are we trying to solve? In this case it’s making sure your wishes are known before you die, not after, and in that regard none of the sites offer anything superior to traditional methods.