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Death and Our Digital Legacy

“Here it is. I’m dead, and this is the last post to my blog.”

These words begin the last post on now-deceased blogger Derek K. Miller’s personal website. A message from beyond, the post was thoughtfully prepared by Derek to be posted upon his death, ensuring it a permanent place in his digital legacy. But what about all of the other data we create throughout our lifetime? What happens to our data when we die, and what will we leave behind for our heirs?

Derek’s widow, blogger and podcaster Airdrie Miller, was the first to talk on the subject at the SXSWi panel Digital Immortals: Preserving Life Beyond Death. She opened by describing the emotions that accompany the pain of losing a loved one, the burden that can come with maintaining a digital legacy, and the constant reminders of that person that can surface from digital artifacts. When a service prompts you to follow someone who is no longer alive, how does that feel? How can we make meaning of the co-presence of the living and the dead in our digital world?

While Derek was prescient enough to plan his last post, the panel agreed that most of us are unaware, or just plain lazy, when it comes to our digital legacy. Bill LeFurgy, Digital Initiatives Project Manager for the Library of Congress explained that many of us are not even aware of our archival role for our own data and that puts our digital legacy at risk. LeFurgy suggested two immediate needs to help address this issue. First, libraries should raise awareness and provide guidance on how to manage digital archives. He cited www.digitalpreservation.gov as an example. Second, the tech community should support personal archiving by baking it into our digital tools.

Panel organizer Evan Carroll, co-founder at The Digital Beyond and author of Your Digital Afterlife, asked the panel to provide thoughts on what we can do now. Advice included keeping track of your passwords to give to a digital executor, being aware of Terms of Service around ownership of content, and creating a digital will. Adam Ostrow, SVP Content & Executive Editor at Mashable, seconded this by emphasizing the need to start looking at our digital artifacts more like our physical artifacts. We need to be clear about how we want our digital selves stored, accessed, or even deleted after we are gone.

Another interesting aspect of this discussion was around ownership of content. Richard Banks, Senior Interaction Designer at Microsoft Research and author of The Future of Looking Back, suggested that what gets passed on or inherited may not always be the content, but rather the ‘manipulations’ of that data. For instance, I might pass on my curated collections of bookmarks and music, my tags and description of that content. Banks also talked about the idea of unwritten ‘contracts’ to keep content available. An example is a photo on Facebook that has comments or tags. The person who posted the photo in the first place may be less likely to delete that photo because of the shared social data that is embedded with it.

While there are lots of questions to answer about how our digital lives will be preserved, there is no doubt that this is an area that will need to be explored and thoughtfully designed. The data we amass over a lifetime will only increase in the future and hopefully become increasingly valuable to our future generations.

Somewhere down the road, your grandkids might search to find out something specific about you like, “What did Grandma think about the 2012 U.S. presidential election?” When they find a tweet, the record might provide some insight into who you are, but it will also need to provide context and an explanation about where the archive came from. After all, your grandkids will likely also be asking, “What’s Twitter?”

Amber Lindholm is an interaction designer for global innovation firm frog.  She is experienced in design research and innovation methods with a focus on understanding human behavior. She is based in Austin.

Image by Gary Annett.