What do these two images have in common? what happens to our online life after death
July 18, 2014
I was talking to a group of young start-up entrepreneurs last year on the subject of having an exit strategy for their businesses. It was a run of the mill conversation – I realised they had done a lot of work understand what needed to go into the business but often, they had no strategy for what would happen in the event of death, fall out with a business partner, sale of the company or a take-over offer. Of course, I gave them the advice that anyone would about making sure they had plan b’s in place for any eventuality.
Then one of them asked me the most remarkable question that really has captured my imagination and that was “what happens to our social media records if we die.” Now, it was a fairly innocuous question and, admittedly we had a couple of beers after the conference, but the premise of the question was right – what does happen to all of the information we store online and who will ultimately end up owning it?
The reality is we largely live our lives in isolation to everyone else around us even though by appearances our lives through Facebook and Twitter can seem very public. For example I have 517 photos uploaded to Facebook of moments in my life that have been a mixture of both public and personal. The birth of children and weddings, birthdays and even funerals – to speaking at conferences and video grabs of speeches. Yet, even though they appear to be very public images the truth is only I really know the context behind each.
For example, there is this awesome photo of me meeting the Dalai Lama in India several years ago – the image paints the picture of two people laughing but it was what was going through my head that was the real story – I remember thinking “wow, how awesome is this, I can’t wait to get home and ring mum!” or when I met the UN Secretary General over lunch my personal thought was “ok, you’re not the Dalai lama but still – how awesome is this, I wonder if we can do a selfie together?”.
Then there are the number of friends and connections I have – currently more than 1,000 on Facebook and many thousands through LinkedIn. There are people I know and people I don’t but perhaps the largest number involved in my online life is the bank of emails I have that are archived over many years – 1 million and counting. What would happen to all of this information, my online life if I was to die?
Well, first you have to know that even though you might leave your password written down for someone to find and take control over the record of your life (yes I’ll come back to that word control later) it doesn’t mean they own it because often the providers terms of service recognise the person of whom the account was created for – not for others who may want to access it when they die. In fact, according to the law in the United States loved ones who access a dead person’s account could in fact be committing a criminal act.
This is why the Uniform Law Commission in the US is developing a plan to allow access to loved ones automatically unless it has otherwise been specified in a will. Now, it should be noted that Facebook already has some steps users can take to try and un-frustrate the process of grieving families trying to access accounts in order to memorialize. But, Facebook is but one platform. According to a Microsoft study back in 2007 the average web user has 25 accounts. In my case, I sat down and counted them – from YouTube (where I have videos) to Facebook, from Yahoo Small Business and email to Google Analytics – I have more than 40 different accounts that sit at the centre of my business and personal life.
Coming back to the complexity of ownership – a lot of people still don’t realise that the vast amount of data that you might upload to a site doesn’t actually remain ‘owned” by you. Once it hits the platform technically (and legally) it is owned by the platform. That said, if a request is received by Twitter from an estate they will in fact delete the account.
Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington told the AP “No one would keep 10 years of every communication they ever had with dozens or even hundreds of other people under their bed.” And she is right –we are in fact, living in a new reality.
All of this aside, I asked a friend of mine about what he thought and his reply: “Who cares about my stuff? I mean it’s not as if I know that many people!” and that raises another really interesting point. Yes, the vast amount of people with social media profiles may take that same view but then there are a growing number of others that believe that leaving a legacy of some description is part of their life’s work however big or small. Then, there is another matter that should be raised in relation to people of note such as Presidents and Prime Ministers, Business Leaders and Celebrities. In the case of well-known politicians their life work makes it to an archive because it is not just part of the public record, often their work is part of the history of the times or of that nation.
Therefore should the national archives of the nation state where the person resided, famous or not, be the owner of the data after death and, in doing so, record the contribution, however big or small, that the person had made to the nation?
At the end of the day there are a number of reasons why this is an important discussion and it was bought home to me even more so today when I sat down to write this opinion piece after seeing a photo of published in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17.
It was a post on the Facebook page of Con Pan who, minutes before boarding the flight took a photo of the plane at the gate with the words “If this plane disappears, this is what it looks like”
Without knowing it Con Pan’s post on his Facebook page and that photo are now part of the historical record, an insight into the mind of just a regular human being going about his business, of looking forward to a flight to a holiday destination who, at the time, probably thought that nothing could go wrong. The fact is, as this tragedy unfolds that one post and one image will now be replayed over and over again for the fact it has entered the archive of historical importance.
From my perspective I have made a conscious decisions about how my accounts will be handled and why – while I am sure not many people will be overly interested in my private musings, in the future they may look back at these times and my participation in them and make the opposite determination because, our places in history are not determined through the lens of the times we ourselves live – but through the lens of those who are yet to come who will interpret that contribution.
So, this is where we need to start having a conversation – what do you think? What will you do with your Facebook or LinkedIn pages?
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