I attended a panel discussion tonight about digital legacy. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how we deal with all the data we generate online, so it was a great opportunity to have a discussion with other folks who are thinking about similar things.
I like to think about digital legacy from the standpoint of what you leave behind to represent you online into the future. Technology is at an interesting point where you actually have the opportunity to leave much more than a shoebox full of photos and letters deemed important enough to collect and horde until your next of kin handles your affairs.
What stories do you want to tell for the next generation of genealogists? Do you save everything or only a small sample of the things you have shared online? How can you be certain your digital legacy is carried out the way you want it to be?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I do think about them.
Most of tonight’s discussion focused on a slightly different aspect of digital legacy. The idea that you need to prepare your affairs so that your personal data sprawl is dealt with efficiently when you die. This is an important thing to consider, because it may impact those you leave behind.
Your legacy isn’t just Facebook status updates
While Facebook, Twitter, blogs, comments, and other social interactions certainly play a role in your digital legacy, there are plenty of other digital data points that can create challenges for the people you leave behind. Automatic debits, access to digital health information that could assist in early detection of illness for a younger generation, and even embarrassing or compromising data are all things to consider. How would you deal with the data?
Even if you don’t care about what happens to your data after you die, the people you leave behind might. Consider that everyone you are connected to on Facebook will be reminded that it’s your birthday, even after you die. That is unless you have your next of kin provide a death certificate to Facebook so your account can either be memorialized (which stops the automated notifications to friends) or terminated if you don’t want it to live on.
Creating a Digital Shoebox
One of the key takeaways from tonight’s gathering is the importance of spelling out what you want done with your digital identity when you die. Just like having a will is important for keeping your affairs in order in the physical world, spelling out what you want done with all of your digital affects may be simpler than leaving your relatives to decide what to do.
The biggest difference between the shoebox analogy and today’s world is the shoebox is easy to hand off to someone. The terms of service for a photo upload site may dictate that sharing the password is technically a violation, even if you want someone to have access after you are gone. What if that site opted to delete everything you posted after receiving a notice of death?
The other challenge to something like a digital shoebox is future compatibility. I hope I live at least another fifty years. Based on the dramatic changes in technology during my lifetime so far, I can only assume there will be additional changes in the future. Will photos, video, and text stored in today’s formats be viewable by the time I pass away?
My solution to the digital shoebox is to store multiple copies of important files on multiple services. I keep all my passwords in a password manager so that they are easy to find. The master password will be made available so that accessing my accounts will be part of my estate. With any luck, there will be software that can still read the files into the future.
Have you thought about how you will deal with your digital affairs when you die? What will your life online look like after death?