1. Much of your personal information will stick around online for a while after you die, and there are virtually no laws or systems governing what happens to it. Until that changes, you can’t make assumptions about who will - or will not - be able to access your data after you’re gone. Even so, it may help to record your preferences and to have conversations with loved ones about your wishes for your digital information.
2. Grief is a highly individual phenomenon, online and off, and what’s painful to one person is precious to another. For example, social media accounts are tailor made for continuing bonds with the dead, but that comforts some and unnerves others. When companies try to work out the ‘right’ way to help, the individuality of mourning flummoxes them every time. For example, Facebook recently announced that they’ll now be using AI to prevent people’s receiving birthday reminders for dead people, but for every bereaved person who’s upset by these reminders, there’s another mourner who wants them. There’s no rulebook for grief.
3. Email accounts and social media profiles of deceased persons can be hacked by criminals for nefarious purposes, but even well-meaning people can cause emotional distress through accessing these accounts. If you are ‘managing’ or otherwise operating from within a deceased person’s device or online accounts, remember that your activity may result in ‘voice from beyond the grave’ phenomena. Put yourself in other people’s shoes.
4. Throughout your life, be an unapologetic curator. Keep capture and storage of information essential and minimal, and/or tidy up your digital house frequently. If our accumulated digital material were like our physical possessions, we’d all be considered extreme hoarders. When you die, your loved ones will have your digital estate to sort out. Will it be easy to navigate, or will it be stacked to the rafters with an undifferentiated mass of digital stuff, leaving them unable to see the wood for the trees?
5. Your online information is not forever. Ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls are still around, but hardware, software, coding and the Internet are constantly changing. Your digitally stored information may be nonexistent, inaccessible or unreadable within just a few years, and even the biggest companies fail. Don’t trust ‘the cloud’, big tech companies, or digital-legacy websites with the sole care of your most precious memories. Go old school and back them up in material format.
About Elaine Kasket
All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age (Little Brown UK/Robinson, 2019) is Elaine’s first nonfiction book for general audiences. When she is not writing or speaking about the murky and weirdly compelling junctures where life, death and the digital meet, Elaine is a producer for the Mortified live storytelling project, tells tales on stage, and makes unsuccessful attempts at learning the banjo. She lives in East London with her husband, daughter and a revolving cast of troublesome chickens. Connect with Elaine on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.