On the Internet, nobody knows you're dead.
Your data and personal accounts and digital identity—content that is increasingly being referred to as your "digital estate"—remain in the cloud, of course. But what's to become of it all? Should your Facebook profile remain accessible, your Instagram archived? And who should have access?
As our lives and identities are increasingly managed online and channeled through social media, the notion of digital estate management has become less of a dystopian punchline and more a topic of genuine concern—but only five states have addressed the question, NPR's All Tech Considered blog notes today:
Only five states have enacted laws so far to address digital estate management, according to an article in the journal CommLaw Conspectus. There is no uniform federal law. Without it—and if you're in a state without clear-cut digital estate guidelines—the various service agreements of Internet companies govern what happens to our digital identities after death.
That can be problematic because of privacy concerns and the lack of uniformity in policies among Internet and social media companies.
Those five states include Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, Indiana, and Connecticut. Elsewhere, as NPR's Elise Hu chronicles, your online afterlife (or your loved one's) is at the behest of the service agreements of the tech companies in question, most of whom haven't really figured out a plan to address human mortality, either. Take, for example, the case of Anthony Cannata, who committed suicide in 2011:
The murky rules around digital asset management made the 20-year-old's suicide even more painful. Before taking his own life in 2011, Cannata uploaded a photo to his Facebook account that showed him holding a gun to his mouth. His family and friends petitioned Facebook to remove the photo or grant them access to his account to remove it after his death. But because they faced obstacles in getting access, the disturbing photo stayed online for more than a month, not removed by Facebook until Cannata's mother sent the company a newspaper article about the situation.
Absent any established legal policy, a handful of morbid-minded web entrepreneurs have launched services with names like Legacy Locker and DataInherit to help you secure your digital life. The New York Times Magazine profiled the curious business in early 2011, and it seems the whole thing made some readers queasy, one going so far as to call it "the latest cyberspace craze devoted to self-delusional egotism."
But two-and-a-half years later, we may be out of the wilderness: we've seen how digital estate management looks, roughly, in at least one high-profile case.
When beloved film critic Roger Ebert passed away in early April, he left behind some 800,000 Twitter followers, 100,000 Facebook fans, and one of the most well-respected film criticism websites and oeuvres in existence. Ebert's empire didn't fade to black when the critic died—his verified Twitter account continued tweeting (albeit a little more sporadically than before), and his website, RogerEbert.com, deferred to a new staff of writers and editors. Most of the time, Ebert's widow has introduced tweets with "CHAZ HERE" to minimize disorientation (which seems to come with the territory when one tweets from beyond the grave). But in one instance, she fired off a tweet that Roger apparently wrote before his passing:
Even when the theater has gone dark, the story is still alive in you.— Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) May 16, 2013
In a recent letter announcing a new Twitter account, @EbertVoices, Chaz claims that followers were able to tell the difference, and she explains how Roger gave her the keys to his digital identity in the final months of his life—and how she handled it after his death:
Starting in about March of this year he began to give me the secret code to his Twitter and Facebook accounts and he told me to make sure I kept his Twitter account up-to-date. I thought this was strange, but I didn't pay much attention to it. [...] So when he passed away and some suggested that we shut down his Twitter account, I remembered his admonishments against it. He knew that it could be disconcerting to some people to see his picture pop up if he was no longer here, so I changed the photo. At a lovely tribute to him in the south of France during the Cannes Film Festival, Julie Sisk at the American Pavilion got 250 people together on the beach and took a photo of them giving a "500 Thumbs Up Salute." That is the photo we switched to. (I have to admit that I still miss seeing the old photo of Roger.)
"Roger wanted us to use this account only for certain tweets," Chaz explained in a May 23 tweet from Roger's account. "He wanted us to have a Twitterchat, and we are working out the plans for it," she adds in her letter.
Widely recognized for his comfort with social media platforms during his lifetime (particularly after he lost the physical ability to speak), Ebert may well be a digital pioneer in death, too. That's not to say he used a service like Legacy Locker or hired a lawyer to manage his digital estate (if he did, Chaz isn't saying). But as death loomed closer, he became proactive about ensuring his accounts were in capable hands and his wishes understood. Sure, it can be creepy to see a dead person tweet from the digital beyond (just ask those following former New York City mayor Ed Koch at the time of his death), but give the man some credit for thinking ahead.
You may not have 800,000 Twitter followers and a world-famous film site. But chances are you have digital accounts of some personal value, and what will become of them if you die tomorrow?