The Internet has given us a kind of digital afterlife, where our online activities can be preserved and memorialized like fossils in a rock. We talked to an expert about how your friends, family, and complete strangers will use the Internet to remember you long after you're gone.
One person who's given this subject considerable thought is Sarah Cashmore, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. I contacted her to learn more about this subject — one that's affected her quite personally.
io9: Tell us how you came to be interested in digital afterlives.
Sarah Cashmore: I sort of fell into this issue. My personal experience is that back in 2009, a close Twitter friend of mine, Mac Tonnies, passed away very suddenly. Mac was a science fiction writer and prolific blogger who left behind a lot of unique digital content and many friends who loved him. His blog, Posthuman Blues, was a collection of everything that interested him; it was a wonderfully weird curated collection of esoterica he scoured the internet for. After he passed away, there was a growing concern among his friends what would become of his online legacy; for many of us who hadn't met him in person, his online presence was the only way we knew him, so it was very important to us to preserve it. His legacy consisted not only of his online materials, but also the friendships he had developed.
One friend, Mark, took it upon himself to back up Mac's websites. This required him to collaborate with Mac's parents, who were taking care of Mac's affairs, because it took some figuring out where his credit card charges were going, and so on. But Mark bought some hosting space and archived everything so we wouldn't lose it. Everyone appreciated Mark's incurring that cost, because no one really knew what was going to happen to the site. I still don't think the policies around blogs is very clear. Anything could happen.
Above: Mac Tonnies's blog, Posthuman Blues, is still online five years after his untimely death. His final post, titled "Triptych 15," represents his final contribution to the Web. The comments section, now 450 comments deep, was where his readers first found out about his death and where they were able to leave their condolensces. The screen cap above shows the first several comments in the days following his mysterious disappearance (Mac died suddenly in his sleep).
I, on the other hand, wanted to maintain the community of his friends. After news of his passing spread, there was a period of about a week where Mac's online Twitter friends found each other through hashtagging his name, and we just introduced ourselves to each other, shared condolences and shared memories. I met dozens of people, each as grief-stricken as I was, many of whom had never met Mac in person but were very devoted to him and devastated by the loss of this friend. I started Macbots as an outlet for these friends I'd met to continue sharing, and hopefully heal through expressing themselves, creatively or otherwise, to a community of Mac's friends who understood how it felt to lose this unique friend.
Macbots began as a tribute site that I thought might be geared toward his more artistic friends. I just thought that a site for posting fan art might be a fun way for his friends to commemorate such a special guy. But I never really pressed the idea; it was just a suggestion. I didn't want to take ownership of the blog; I just wanted to set up a collaborative space for Mac's friends. I added anyone who contacted me as Mac's friend as an author so they could add to the site as they pleased. And whereas some people did create artistic pieces, there are also a lot of posts that are just messages from us to Mac, and us to each other. A really special day was when Mac's mom Dana send me sci-fi pictures and short stories Mac had created as a child to post on the site. And it's amazing, but all this time later, we still have visitors to the site every day.
What are some of the various digital artifacts that people leave behind?
The obvious ones are the places in the cloud where people deliberately create content, like in social media sites and productivity spaces like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google Docs, and so on. But there are less obvious sites, including message boards/forums, YouTube, SoundCloud/MixCloud, online gaming high scores, bank statements — and even dating profiles. But our digital artifacts are also built up anywhere a computer backs up our preferences or histories. Examples would be our computer settings, Amazon suggestions or Netflix channels.
Are most social networking sites sensitive to this issue, and what typically happens when a user passes away?
Any social media site that has any form of automation in their services has to be responsible and responsive to this issue. For example, Facebook learned they had to, as people complained about getting "recommendations" from friends and family members who'd passed away. When this issue first came out, they clarified or revised their policy so that someone could send in a death certificate so the activity on their account would cease. But every site has a different policy when dealing with this.
Above: An example of a Facebook Memorial page.
Tell us about digital shrines and memorials. How has this space changed recently?
Digital shrines or memorials seem to be gaining in popularity. Just last week, for example, a friend of mine at school passed away. The e-mail memorial notice that was passed around the department is actually a link to a memorial site set up by the funeral directors. It's set up very similarly to a social media site, where my friend's name and picture is included on the main page, and there are tabs so you can switch between practical information such as where the visitation is going to be held, and social areas so family and friends can post stories or sign the guestbook, upload pictures and videos, and there's even a place where you can set up a digitized family tree. I'd never seen anything like this before, so my first reaction was how beautifully this was put together.