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How Prepared Are You for Your Digital Afterlife?

It’s a modern reality. After you leave the Earth, you’ll leave behind a digital footprint that will outlive you forever resting, all those zeroes and ones forever hanging out in the Cloud.

Planning for Digital Accounts After Death

It’s a modern reality. After you leave the Earth, you’ll leave behind a digital footprint that will outlive you forever resting, all those zeroes and ones forever hanging out in the cloud.

So why does it matter? It all depends on what you want others to see after you are gone. Whether or not you want friends and family to view your high school reunion photos or a trip to Hawaii later depends on decisions you can make now while you are still alive.

Memorialize or Log Off for Good?

Some may authorize a memorialized page of their social media accounts, while others want to close those accounts and log off forever. Because you can’t make these decisions after you’ve gone, the time to think about your "post-mortem" data is now, before it's too late.

We talked with Jed Brubaker, an assistant professor in Information Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder, for guidance on preparing for your digital future.

Brubaker shared that the average internet user has over 190 digital accounts and produces over 850 GB of data per year but has little information on what to do at life’s end. He is working to change that.

Brubaker is conducting a five to seven-year project called Digital Hospice: Human-Centered Design for Personal Accounts and Data at the End of Life, studying how we can better get our digital lives in order at the end of life.

These five steps will help you prepare your digital accounts for your goodbye.

1. Conduct an Inventory of Accounts

Do an inventory of your online accounts (social media, storage, etc.). Keep them in a notebook or spreadsheet, noting where they are, user name information, and other details that will help you when you choose the outcome for each. Keep passwords in a safe place.

2. Choose Which Will Live On If Any

Consider whether you'd like your online accounts to continue after you are gone. Some social media sites, like Facebook and Instagram, have a process for memorializing your pages after you die. Other sites, like Google, have a program in place if an account becomes inactive. Some sites, like LinkedIn, let others notify them if someone has passed away.

3. Follow Site Instructions

Visit the accounts you want to keep and follow instructions for memorialization or ownership after you are gone.

4. Document Plans and Share

Write down or type out your plans and share them with friends and family who will be carrying out your wishes or who you want to know what you’ve chosen to do with your digital accounts.

5. Review Regularly

Remember to review your inventory regularly as you add accounts. Consider closing accounts you don’t use now or don’t think will be meaningful to others when you are gone.

Creating Tools for Planning Your Digital Afterlife

“For us, it all started with a simple premise which is that technology has so focused on the near term that even as we developed social media systems that are supposed to consider and encapsulate the entirety of our lives, they’ve often forgotten to consider perhaps the most inevitable part of life – which is that it comes to an end,” Brubaker said.

Brubaker has modeled his program on hospice care, palliative care, and human-centered design, guided by the idea that the “whole human” should be considered. His advisory board includes medical professionals, estate planners, archivists, death doulas, and spiritual leaders.

He says his mission is to “make technology worthy of the complexity of our human lives.” He’s studied “digital afterlives” over the past decade “to improve the management of accounts and data after we die and to better support those we leave behind.”

With a grant from the National Sciences Foundation, Brubaker’s team works with terminally ill patients 50 and under and their families to build best practices and tools to help them plan their digital afterlife.

They hope to hold “clinics” to help guide people in planning their tech afterlives.

Massive Usability Problem 

They also want to influence software and Internet companies, creating the platforms we use to consider what happens when we die. Brubaker helped design Facebook’s Legacy Contact program.

“There is this growing need to manage our online accounts and data and we have what is effectively a massive usability problem,” Brubaker explained.

He says planning is a piece of what’s needed. Brubaker says he’s encountered many loved ones who “wanted to do right” but didn’t know how. Asked about what advice he’d give people after his TEDx Talk, he recalls saying, “Even if you do not care what happens to your Facebook account, tell them. The amount of burden that takes off them, angst at night or bickering and fighting amongst family… just tell them, even if the answer is ‘I don’t care. I trust you.’” 

Preserving Stories and Relationships

Brubaker is interested in more than just the mechanics of managing digital data. He’s interested in the human connections behind our online accounts and respecting the meaning of our digital objects and their importance to people. “It is about preserving stories, relationships, and culture because historically, these were deleted because no one thought they mattered.”  

Brubaker says thinking about this “post-mortem data” goes beyond deciding what to do with your social media account or online photos. He says that there may be opportunities in the future to use our data to remember loved ones, “Some proportion of that data is going to live on. And it means we have a future in which our post-mortem data will be available to technology to make designs around and maybe they are designs to help you remember a loved one that passed … there is so much that can be used to encourage remembrance, encourage connections to previous generations and to our own history and culture and I think we have an opportunity to leverage that data to encourage that kind of reminiscence and that historical perspective and engagement, but design work has to be done to help people start to see what that’s going to look like.”

Ready to start preparing for your own or another’s digital afterlife? Some social media and tech companies have provided ways to memorialize your account or arrange for a trusted contact to control your data after you die, companies like Facebook, InstagramLinkedIn, Google, and Apple. Find more tips from The Guardian and planning site Cake

You can follow developments from the University of Colorado’s Digital Hospice project by signing up for their newsletter here.

For more ways to be prepared ahead of time, take a look at our article When Someone Dies: A Guide to the First 6 Steps.

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