When You’re Dead to the World, Not to the Internet

    For years now I’ve been trying to consolidate my digital litter — fragmented into sites ranging from gmail to tumblr — into one place, hoping to unify my online presence into a single collection so thorough that it might as well be the real me. It’s a frustrating project, but I have one thing going for me: I’m still alive to do it. 

    This seems like an odd advantage, but when we’re drowning in content and when 370,000 Facebook users die annually, everyone online should think about what happens to our data after death. Sure, there’s the Facebook “memorialize” option, but most of us also have wreaths of other correspondence, some of which we’d rather not see the light of day (see: James Joyce’s dirty love letters), others we’d like to be preserved and made accessible in a bid for immortality.

    Take the case of Leslie Harpold, a former coworker of mine and popular blogger, who died unexpectedly in 2006. Harpold hadn’t provided instructions on how to execute her digital estate, so her family took down the websites that hosted her work online, cutting a crucial part of her off from her previous admirers. On the flip side, there’s the parents of Justin Ellsworth, a Marine killed in 2004, who sued Yahoo! in order to have access to his email — which likely contained messages never meant for their eyes. We have yet to see a major case over posthumus online privacy rights, but with existing estate laws inapplicable to digital artifacts, it’s only a matter of time before the battle between parents who want to destroy Sarah’s Cabo spring break album, and the classmates who want it saved to remember every facet of their friend. There’s been a few proposed solutions for preservation, from websites offering to host content indefinitely (for a one-time fee) to suggestions that universities take control of digital archives the way they collect rare books. All of these ideas have their kinks (such as the fate of content violating copyright), but the problem of digital afterlife is here to stay, with effects on our browsing habits while we’re still breathing.

    This public form of living is a form of democratization — now we can access the life of almost anyone, big or small; the Library of Congress even announced last year that it is planning to archive every tweet. But the unprecedented memory of the Internet gives enormous weight to everything we do, eradicating Milan Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being” and taking away some of the freedom to be stupid now and not be judged after death.

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