Digital Death

Where does your data go when you die?
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  June 1, 2011

I don't plan to live past 50. If I keep this pedal pinned to the floor, even that might be pushing it. Death is something that I ponder daily, usually between my morning blunt and Burger King breakfast run.

Yet for all my morbid musings, I've never thought much about my digital legacy — the only significant asset that I have. In addition to all the articles I've written that exist online, I've got more photos, profiles, and social-networking accounts than the average Web junkie, and a whole lot of enemies who would flame my wall in the event of my demise. I don't care about my body; like comedian David Cross, I'm donating my dead meat to necrophiliacs (if possible; there's no check box for that). It's my virtual soul that I wish to preserve.

What would happen if I logged off for good, and took my passwords to the grave? Will spambots devour my blogs even as maggots chomp my corpse?

"You're delusional if you think everything you put on the web is going to be there forever," said Adele McAlear, who founded the site Death and Digital Legacy, at a recent lecture I attended at SXSW. Her statement shook me. A top social-media consultant and seasoned lecturer on these matters, McLear says the US Supreme Court will inevitably have to determine how companies handle data belonging to dead users.

In the absence of meaningful state or federal regulation regarding post-mortem rights in cyberspace, a so-called digital death industry is booming. Sites like DataInherit, a "Swiss bank for data" — have tens of thousands of users in more than 100 countries. MemoryOf, which allows survivors to build tribute pages, is steadily approaching the 100,000-memorial mark, while the comparable 1000Memories recently became the first company of its kind to attract a seven-figure capital injection.

There's been some notable coverage of digital death; business publications are especially enthralled by the potential of this relatively uninhabited marketplace. But I chose a more practical approach to probe the phenomenon, and decided to write out my own Web will.


To that end, of the dozen or so services I could have used for digital asset management, I picked the Madison, Wisconsin–based Entrustet, which has emerged as an industry leader. The three-year-old company's co-founder, Newton native Jesse Davis, is a young healthy dude who I think will be around for a while, and who says his company has taken serious safety precautions, going "above and beyond" standard security measures to deeply encrypt information.

The first thing Davis advises me to do is "cloud count," or take an inventory of every site and service I belong to. Aside from the basics — Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Tumblr, Facebook, and an interminable MySpace — there are several other accounts that I want closed, or at least maintained, after I pass. There's the eBay profile that I use to sell old comics for beer money, and the Adult Friend Finder account from my truly degenerate days. (In some sort of sick metaphor, hookup-site memberships are a major pain to get rid of.) I also have a few WordPress blogs, SpringPad for my field notes, and online Bank of America access.

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  Topics: News Features , David Cross, SXSW
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