As Alexis Madrigal noted earlier this week, Rob Walker has a fascinating piece in the New York Times Magazine -- "Cyberspace When You're Dead" -- discussing the relatively new phenomenon of dealing with the digital estates left behind by the recently deceased. The full article is worth reading, as Walker explores the rise of Facebook memorials and the new industries forming around the intersection between stockpiles of "digital posessions and expressions" and "the banal inevitability of human mortality:"
One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000. Academics have begun to explore the subject (how does this change the way we remember and grieve?), social-media consultants have begun to talk about it (what are the legal implications?) and entrepreneurs are trying to build whole new businesses around digital-afterlife management (is there a profit opportunity here?). Evan Carroll and John Romano, interaction-design experts in Raleigh, N.C., who run a site called TheDigitalBeyond.com, have just published a tips-and-planning book, "Your Digital Afterlife," with advice about such matters as appointing a "digital executor."
The phenomenon of maintaining digital memorials is not new among tech-saavy Millennials -- during my undergraduate years, Facebook frequently served as a de facto memorial for classmates lost to tragedy -- and Walker provides some moving anecdotes of the ways individuals and companies are working to preserve their external, digital memories. Among one of the most compelling stories is that of Mac Tonnies, who passed away suddenly in 2009. His parents Dana and Bob were left not only with Tonnies' digital persona to tend to, but his ephemeral network of friends and connections across the Web. "The most remarkable set of connections to emerge from Tonnies's digital afterlife isn't among his online friends -- it is between those friends and his parents, the previously computer-shunning Dana and Bob Tonnies," Walker wrote. "Dana, who told me that her husband now teases her about how much time she spends sending and answering e-mail (a good bit of it coming from her son's online social circle), is presently going through Posthuman Blues [Tonnies' blog], in order, from the beginning."
But this synergy, Walker noted, is a "best-case" scenario for a digital afterlife. What if Tonnies' parents and friends differed in the online memorial they imagined for their lost companion? Should those memories remain forever adrift on the Web, a permanent mausoleum built on status updates and photo albums, if they provide pain for some and comfort for others?