Rob Walker has a wonderful exploration of digital afterlives this week's New York Times Magazine. It's worth reading in full, but what struck me is that we're about to be overwhelmed by people dying and leaving behind accounts, avatars, and effects. Just a few years ago, it seemed novel to think about what to do about a dead person's online life. It was the sort of thing that digital anthropologists wrote papers about for obscure conferences.
Now, with the explosion of social media usage in progressively older age groups, deciding how to manage these situations will be commonplace and important. Walker cites one estimate that 375,000 American Facebook users will die this year; what had seemed bizarre is becoming banal at scale.
Nevertheless: people die. For most of us, the fate of tweets and status updates and the like may seem trivial (who cares -- I'll be dead!). But increasingly we're not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders.