Because it’s New Years Eve, and I’m kind of a morbid asshole, I thought I’d harsh your alcohol-induced buzz with some grim reality by asking the question: What happens to your online content when die?

Sure, there are online memorials through which your family can set up a memorial site that will be hosted until the end of time (or until the company hosting it goes out of business), but what about the online content you yourself have created? For some of you, “online content” might only mean your Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter or (God forbid) Myspace accounts. For others who are more tech savvy and prolific, this could mean literally dozens of websites with hundreds or thousands of blog posts, tutorials, e-books (hah!), photos, slideshows, and so on.

Because I am not aging gracefully, and because what I would consider my life’s work lives almost entirely online in the ether, I think about this a lot. Probably more than is healthy, but that’s what booze is for.

This question is more complex than it seems, and becomes increasingly complicated if you have your own independent websites, as I’ll discuss later in this post.

Social Networking Sites

In the case of social networking sites, in most cases, your account will simply linger online with no new posts unless you have given a friend or family member your login information through which they could post a death notice and/or delete your account. In the case of MySpace, there are websites such as MyDeathSpace that allows you to memorialize a recently deceased friend or family member’s MySpace account.

The exception to this (so far) is Facebook. When you join the choir invisible, friends or family can fill out a form to report a profile as deceased, which requires knowledge of the person’s date of birth, email address used for the account, network, and full name. Once a profile has been set to ‘deceased’, friends may continue to post memorial notes on your wall, but you will not (or should not, anyway – I have found this to be buggy) show up in Facebook application invites, etc.

If you have a paid account of any kind, for example with Flickr or LiveJournal, your account will obviously revert to unpaid when the yearly renewal fee is not paid. Even so, unless you have provided instructions and your login information to someone still alive, the accounts will remain available and untouched unless a family member petitions to have them deleted.

Emails from Beyond the Grave

If you’re the kind of control freak that wants to have a say in who gets notified about your death and what that message says (no shame in it – I *am* that freak), services such as GreatGoodbye.Com or MyLastEmail will let you prepare a message (including photos and video) and recipients in advance. A code is generated that you give to a trusted friend or family member, and when you finally lay down for your eternal dirtnap, that person activates the code and the emails get sent.

I’m a little torn on this. While I want to make sure that I get a chance (even if posthumously) to tell the people I love how much I loved them, not all of my loved ones have email, and frankly, it still comes off a little creepy to me.

Of course, if you’re a passive-aggressive dick, you could use a service like this to get the final digs in on someone you weren’t very fond of. You will absolutely have the last word, although honestly, if that kind of thing is worth the cash to you, the world is probably better off without you.

Dead Man’s Switch

A digital dead man’s switch works exactly like the dead man’s switches in movies, only instead of blowing yourself and the hostages up if your finger comes off the button, your carefully crafted post-death plan is triggered.

As Tony Geis explains in an interesting article from NPR entitled Dead Man’s Switch: CC Me From The Other Side:

“I concocted the idea one day when I was almost hit by a car. A program running on a couple of my servers supervises my online presence in various ways. It notices if I post on Facebook, Twitter, my blog, etc., log into any of my servers, send an e-mail, etc. Things like that. If it becomes apparent that I haven’t been around in quite some time, it ‘unlocks’ and a trusted individual can activate it. When it is activated, various trusted individuals will be sent e-mails explaining the situation and be granted access to my accounts.”

Geis rigged his own system as an alternative to using a service like GreatGoodbye, but not everyone will have that level of technical skill, so perhaps a service like GreatGoodbye (or others) would be a good idea if only to email your selected, trusted contacts your login information and instructions in the event of your passing.

According to Forbes magazine, if you’re serious about keeping your online presence going you should appoint an executor, somebody who’ll handle your affairs when you’re gone. Leave him or her your logins and other key information, and if there’s stuff you’d rather the family didn’t see you can arrange for the executor to delete specific content from your computer or online accounts.

Speaking of deleting your social media profiles, website SuicideMachine helps you do just that. It was recently featured on Lifehacker.Com, so if it’s not responding quickly – or at all – that’s why. Just give it a little time and check back when the crushing force of the Lifehacker effect has subsided.

Incidentally, although we’re discussing the topic of actual IRL death it should be noted that SuicideMachine’s name refers to killing off on your social networking profiles. It’s not advocating suicide (that I know of) and isn’t positioned to be a tool to delete your profiles after you’ve passed on, but the combination of SuicideMachine and the Dead Man’s Switch might work in a will to make it easier for your family to delete your online presence if that is your final wish. It works with most of the popular social networks, and can really cut down the time it takes to nuke them all. Sadly, Facebook is being douchey and blocking their IP, so the Facebook integration aspect isn’t functioning right now.

Challenges

As I mentioned, I’ve thought about this a lot. While some of the solutions mentioned above are better than nothing, I think they overlook some less-obvious issues – or at least issues that come up when your online presence is a little more complicated.

Multiple-Personalities

In my case, I have a robust online “persona” on Twitter and other social networks (even this blog) that are very true to my personality. I’m snarky, occasionally funny and mean, and I see my interaction online as a bit of a performance art. I also, however, run a very serious non-profit organization that I founded 8 years ago. Clearly, the messaging I might wish to send to my Twitter friends would likely be different than the messaging I would send to my colleagues through my non-profit work. (Probably slightly less swearing. Probably.) In short, I maintain a professional appearance for the benefit of my organization, as one would expect of the President of any serious company. Trying to sort out the nuances of which group gets what messaging would be complicated and challenging, and the very last thing I would want would be to screw that up and send a message intended for my personal friends to my organization’s list. I can see it now: “See you in hell, bitches! I’ve brought the beer, you bring the hookers and blow!”

Real-Life Friends? Online Friends?

Another interesting challenge is that with social networks evolving to the point where they are used to connect with people you didn’t know before, the lines between “real life friends” and “online friends” becomes more and more blurred. Twitter is a great example of this. The followers on Twitter that I interact with frequently have become as much a part of my life (if not more so) as the “real life” friends I have known for decades but to whom I rarely manage to talk. I don’t even have most of their email addresses, and who knows if we’ll still be in touch by the time I actually kick the bucket. I certainly hope we will, but lives change, priorities change – the same things that make people spend less time with each other in real life get in the way of people spending time with their online friends.

Honestly, I wonder if the terms “online friends” and “real life friends” are even valid anymore. They’re friends. However, because we know each other through a venue that doesn’t provide email addresses, a simple email solution just won’t work if I want to include those friends in my final messages.

But because I know people from all of these different online communities and networks, many of whom are not in my address book, the solution here isn’t necessarily a technical one. Sure, I could create a Facebook/Twitter/MySpace application that allows a trusted family member to trigger your last wishes messaging to your friends in those communities, but what about the Godsmack forums, of which I have been a moderator for 8 years. Or the stone carving listserv I’m on, or the forums for my martial arts school? You get the picture. I would certainly want to include an announcement to them, but those systems don’t have an API that can be tapped into.

Parts of this process would still have to be very manual, which means putting that responsibility on someone I care about, just hours or days after I’ve died.

Passwords and Friends Change

The biggest challenge I see in the automated services solutions is that I change my password often, and use distinct passwords for just about every website I join. I also add new contacts to my address book, friends groups (and friends lists) weekly. Using the automated email workflow concept, I would have to manually update these contact lists every week for the rest of my life. Even as morbid as I am, I don’t want to be reminded of my own mortality that precisely every week for the rest of my life. Even setting website logins aside, the FTP account information for the dozens of websites I run or manage are frequently changed. Which brings me to the most difficult challenge for me, personally.

Non-Technical Friends and Family

As I mentioned, I’m a prolific (one might say habitual) website developer and writer. I can think of at least 10 websites I run that have content that requires constant curating, and probably 15 more that are static that I don’t want to disappear after I’m gone.

FTP login information could be granted to a trusted person by firing off an email with the login to my computer, and then instructions on how to login to my KeePass application that contains the usernames and passwords to my FTP and MySQL sites. But then what? I do not have any close friends or family that even know what FTP is, let alone how to handle creating a new post/page/whatever on each of the proprietary apps I’ve built. It certainly could be done, but that’s a metric assload of work to generate that much documentation, especially when you consider that I may well end up completely changing the software that powers these sites several times before I die. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t have that kind of time.

Moar Monies!

Naturally, hosting costs money. In order for my vast, craptacular works to live on beyond me, someone would have to be paying for it. I currently have it stated in my will that I wish for x amount of money to be allocated towards hosting fees to keep them alive for a specified amount of time.

Relevance and After Life Lifetime

This is less of a challenge than just something to consider while you’re making these types of plans. As much blood, sweat and tears as I’ve devoted to Snipe.Net over the past decade, will it really be relevant enough to keep alive 10 years from now? My tech tips, programing snippets and observations on social media will most likely not be relevant anymore. Keeping that in mind, if I died tomorrow, how long would be appropriate to keep this site alive? A few years maybe? Technology changes so quickly, it’s likely that anything I’ve written here will become obsolete within 6 months, let alone 10 years.

Privacy

In the example I gave above, I would be giving my laptop password to a trusted friend or family member (either informally, or formally by way of an executor), with instructions to access my KeePass file to unlock my other accounts. This also inherently means that the person I entrust with this information has access to all of my files, all of my past emails, all of my social networking private messages, and all of my pr0n. Uhm.. did I say pr0n? I meant banking information. Right.

So short of encrypting large sections of your drive, handing someone the keys to your hard drive is effectively handing them the keys to your entire life, including the bits you may not want to be made available to people you love. Speaking as someone whose step-father once asked her to help him cancel his porn account and remove the malware he got from a porn site, I can tell you there are parts of your private life that really, really, really should follow you to your grave.

Hmmm

As upcoming generations rely more and more on online services and communities and become closer to friends they only know from online who may have no connection to their “real life” friends, I think we’ll see more of this kind of thinking.

Perhaps more importantly, the generation of people whose entire life’s work is purely digital is starting to get older (like me), we will need a more organized, integrated way to handle our online legacies. The most significant, important things I have accomplished in my life so far will disappear if I don’t have a system in place – and right now, that system is kludgey at best, impossible to execute by the technically challenged people I love most at worst.

I do not have children (thank God), and do not want children. My digital creations, self-indulgent and rambling though they may be, are my legacy. They are the only thing I have that has a chance of living on beyond me.

As I’m writing this, I realize that there is currently no solution that does exactly what I need and want. Anyone with some VC capital want to start a company? I’ve already got a plan. Drop me an email if you’ve got some cash to blow. πŸ˜€

Your Responsibility?

Is it weird to think about this? I don’t think so. I personally feel that just as it is responsible to have a will, it is responsible to leave your last wishes and instructions for your social networking profiles. Having had a few friends pass away in this digital age, I wish they had considered their social networking profiles in their last wishes. To your friends and family, it can be heartbreaking (and more than a little creepy) to see haunted by your profile on their friends list after you’ve passed. I lost a friend to suicide this time last year, and it took 4 months for Facebook to finally get the memorial status of his profile set up correctly. It was a painful daily reminder to say the very least. Not to mention that neglecting to make formal plans for your eventual death puts the burden of deciding what to do with your social networking accounts on the very people who are already grieving.

Happy New Year to you all. Stay safe, and consider adding a posthumous persona management plan to your resolutions list. What are your thoughts on this? Is it going too far? Not far enough? Do you already have a plan in place, or a pre-recorded “screw you, world!” video set to be published when you kick it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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I’m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist. I'm the CTO at Mass Mosaic and the CEO of Grokability, Inc. in San Diego, CA. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...

  • I have thought about this some as well, though not nearly as thoroughly as you. I'm not nearly as prepared as I should be, but it's like a will, no-one wants to be prepared because that means admitting death is inevitable.

    What I do have have is 1 program with all my passwords, and I keep meaning to write down the master password to that and put it in my safety deposit box. I suspect that wouldn't help much without instructions on how to access it though. And I don't have a plan for the rest of the online personae. Thanks for adding to my list of things I'm avoiding doing. Now back to avoiding my corporate and personal tax filing.

  • I'm here to help πŸ˜‰

  • Outstanding article! A topic I avoid actively thinking about, but it has occurred to me from time to time. I definitely think it is something to cover in a will or last wishes statement. Having to deal with online accounts and content are just as much work for family and loved ones as going through your physical belongings. I am in the process of putting all my passwords into a KeePass account. But I don't have a plan in place for this eventuality, and I definitely should. It is something I am going to work on for this year and also to mention to my dad, who may have thought about it, and doesn't have nearly the online content that I do, but will want to make a plan for it nonetheless.

    I'd be interested to know if you find, or get an offer to develop, a one-stop solution for this!

  • Hi Linda πŸ™‚ Thanks very much for the kind words! How did you come across this article, if I may ask?

    The company I'd love to form to solve this problem goes beyond the scope of an application or a website – but I think it holds real potential. There is clearly a need for content publishers to have some peace of mind, without having to worry about whether or not the people they leave their last wishes can figure out how to work WordPress or Moveable Type or whatever.

    I'm actually really very interested in this idea. I don't have a lot of VC contacts (that I know of), but I feel lke this is an opportunity that could be huge – with potential to continue oi grow as the new generation of content creators devote their lives to what can be boiled down to a series of ones and zeros πŸ™‚

  • Well you definatly made my new years come back down to earth with this…. I am slightly prepared having a single program holding all my passwords just need to write down the password for the program lol.

    Definatly has been making me think at work about how much more prepared i need to be and might just have to seriously sit down and think tonight πŸ™‚

  • Sorry, I should have clarified. This is Linda NOBLE. πŸ™‚ Got the link off your twitter feed. I DEFINITELY agree that this could be a huge opportunity as it is a previously untouched tech sector. And be genuinely helpful to people too!

  • Ahh, duh πŸ™‚

  • Sorry, I should have clarified. This is Linda NOBLE. πŸ™‚ Got the link off your twitter feed. I DEFINITELY agree that this could be a huge opportunity as it is a previously untouched tech sector. And be genuinely helpful to people too!

  • Ahh, duh πŸ™‚

  • I'd guess that all of us top-level geeks will have that problem. I don't know anyone who would be able to take over even the simplest of tasks, much less the massive online game I've been working on for years…