Your online self lives long after you die

In the excellent science fiction series Caprica (Friday nights on SyFy in the US… gods knows when elsewhere in the world), grieving tech genius Daniel Greystone develops a virtual avatar of his deceased daughter Zoe. Based on every scrap of digital information she left behind, virtual Zoe is near enough an identical reincarnation. The series explores, in part, the ramifications our lives can have long after we’re dead.

Last week, Hungry Beast explored what happens to your various online profiles after you die. And at the same time, Gizmodo posted articles explaining in depth the options available to your family on Twitter and Facebook. But the basic rule with the internet is once something’s public, it’s always public. Particularly with Google’s cache and sites like Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which allows you to view snapshots of over two million pages at different dates, everything that’s publicly viewable at some point or another online is nearly always publicly viewable. The lesson here is to consider very carefully before posting any personal information online, because once you do you can’t take it back. And that’s the advice given by Professor Jon Kleinberg at Cornell University who studies social networks. He was recently quoted in a New York Times article saying “When you’re doing stuff online, you should behave as if you’re doing it in public — because increasingly, it is.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt puts it a little more bluntly: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.

Should we be worried that our online personalities will remain floating aimlessly around on the internet long after we have, with apologies to Monty Python, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet our maker? Personally, I’m not worried. For a start, I’ll be dead and either playing boring music on a harp in Heaven or rocking out in the best parties in Hell. Actually, most likely I’ll just be dead. Point is, I won’t be in any condition to be embarrassed, ashamed, guilty or apologetic for my past existence. But that’s a limited, selfish view – my death will obviously affect others. Parents and friends for example. But the internet isn’t going to just cough up all my dirty secrets to them just because I’ve died. To see my private photos or posts on Facebook, they would have to be actively looking for them. And once I’m dead, they certainly can do so – as Gizmodo points out there are ways of gaining access to a deceased relative’s Facebook account – but doing that they’d know they might uncover parts of my life they didn’t know about. I suspect my family would probably prefer to remember me through their own memories and photos of me, rather than sifting through my online personalities that they previously didn’t have access to. That’s no way to grieve.

Hungry Beast recommends putting your login details in your will and stipulating what data gets removed. But as I said, once something goes online you cannot completely control it, and you cannot guarantee that once something is deleted from your social media site it will never resurface. Sure, you can ask that your Facebook account be closed, or your photos deleted – but how can you be sure none of your friends saved some of your photos? Or your ex? There is always the danger of previously deleted information resurfacing: get used to it. But whether you’re concerned about your online legacy or not, I definitely encourage everyone to have a “death plan” – a blog post or an email or something that your friends or family have so they know your wishes after you died. I made one a few years ago on my personal blog for my friends to see, so they know my thoughts on funerals and cremation etc.

What about you? Are you worried about what information will remain long after you’re dead? Have you ever had to close an account for a deceased relative? Let us know in the comments!