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From ashes to caches: where will your internet output go when you die?

Skull on computer screen

From ashes to caches: where will your internet output go when you die?

Popular TV programmes like BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have encouraged many people to research their ancestry. Some might pay a professional to do it for them, or they may end up sifting through archived newspapers, birth and death records, and other physically printed media from centuries ago to gain clues on what their relatives of the distant past were like. A hundred years from now though, it’s likely ancestry and genealogy will be researched in a very different way.

This is because in 2016, we’re pretty much all creating a digital footprint of our lives. While records from the 1800s may be limited to major events like births, marriages and deaths, people today are keeping public archives of such trivial matters as what they had for breakfast that morning, what music they’re listening to, or what was in door 1 of their advent calendar.

It’s crossed my mind before that in the distant future, huge sections of the internet might become archived, but easily searchable for the public. Is it even possible that the IP addresses people are using today might one day become publicly available, and that somebody’s daily contributions to the internet, the posts and tweets they composed, the pages they created and even the sites they visited could become an indexable archive of their internet behaviour? It’s a thought that I’m sure would make many of us shudder!

And what of social media sites like Facebook? Will our pages die with us, live on as a memorial or even continue as active accounts?

The BBC reported this week that more than half (52%) of Facebook users would like their pages to outlive them and be maintained. About a third (35%) would rather their pages were deleted, but a similar number want them to be looked after by a nominated family member or friend.

Is this something you’ve even thought about? Probably not, but if the worst were to happen, how comfortable would you be with your page remaining active and posts directed at your late self appearing on your wall, or being shut down completely and all your Facebook activity disappearing into the black hole of ex-internet content?

Increasingly, lawyers are advising people to address social media in their wills, and it’s not surprising when you look at some of the sad and stressful stories appearing on the Facebook Community Help forum, where grieving family members’ pleas for the social media site to do something about their departed ones’ pages have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

Facebook has a form on its website that can be used to let it know that an account user is deceased. It takes the issue pretty seriously, even asking for a copy of the person’s death certificate. It also asks whether you would like the account to be deleted or memorialised, or if you have a ‘special request’, which might mean taking over the account on the late Facebook user’s behalf.

If you want to spare your next-of-kin this decision, you can let Facebook know that you just want your account to be deleted when you’re gone, and here are instructions on how to do it. It also lets you chose a Legacy Contact, which basically means a Facebook friend next-of-kin.

With one estimate being that by 2065, there will be more dead Facebook users than living, it’s somewhat eerie to think of a day when social media and the wider internet might become not so much as ‘Who’s who?’ as a ‘Who was who?’. A dead certainty, however, is that we should all consider the changing ways in which we might be remembered, and that a ‘live account’ may not always have a live person behind it.

John Murray

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