How To Plan Ahead For Your Digital Demise

Guest

Robert Roper, author of "Life After Death, In Digital Form" for Obit Magazine

All your blog posts, emails and online photos don't expire just because you do. As the amount of information users share online soars, planning for one's digital demise has spawned a new industry. Robert Roper explains what happens to our online lives after death.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

All your blog posts, emails and online photos will not automatically expire when you do. If you want to preserve your tweets and posts, pass on your sumptuously furnished mansion in Second Life or just keep your private emails private, you need to plan for a digital demise, along with that analog funeral. More and more of our lives involve intense activity online. Yes, social media, but bank account logins and other sensitive information too.

Plans to put your virtual affairs in order have spawned a new industry in Silicon Valley. Companies like Yahoo!, Google and Facebook have specific and often very different policies on how they deal with digital life after death. But other vestiges of our online identities can be much harder for our loved ones to access or erase. And, well, who's going to man your fences in Farmville after you're gone?

If this is an issue you've dealt with or if you have questions about what happens to your avatars, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

You may have missed Digital Death Day last month, but author Robert Roper did not. He wrote about our online lives after death in Obit Magazine and joins us now from our studio at the University of California at Berkeley. Nice to have you there on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ROBERT ROPER (Columnist, Obit Magazine): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And the premise in your article is that all of us now die twice.

Mr. ROPER: Yeah, it's sad but true. We have the old-fashioned, traditional death. We're all still trying to get comfortable with that. And now here's this other kind of death we've got to worry about.

CONAN: What is the most interesting complication? You think that after you die that Facebook and Twitter and all those people would notice and take your account down?

Mr. ROPER: Yeah. Well, I think - I don't know if it's a problem but the - I think a lot of people want to preserve their lives beyond death. There's a lot of people who are attached to what we do on the Web. And since things on the Web can at least theoretically be preserved forever and ever and ever...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROPER: ...there is a chance to grant that immortality here. And so people are starting to think about what they want to preserve and what they want their grandchildren, their great grandchildren and so on and so on to be able to see for the time to come.

CONAN: Because blogs could be equated to diaries. This is the way people chronicle their lives these days.

Mr. ROPER: Right. Right. And diaries used to be locked away by the bedside. Nobody read it. Maybe, you know, somebody stumbled upon it a generation later and were shocked to read that Aunt Jane(ph) had drunk a bathtub gin in the '20s. But now, potentially, our most private thoughts are out there and purposefully out there for billons of people to read.

CONAN: And there's a few of them that we might not want to preserve for the entirety of time.

Mr. ROPER: Absolutely. And I think as people start to get sophisticated about what we pass on and what we don't, we'll be able to choose what we want to perhaps deep six forever and ever - maybe those embarrassing few blog posts that you now regret and those avatars that you shouldn't have taken on and so forth.

CONAN: Typically, who has access to your online life after you die?

Mr. ROPER: Well, I think a short answer is anybody who's got your passwords. There are ways of getting access, you know, perhaps not entirely kosher. But if you die and you don't leave those passwords, really, theoretically, nobody could have access. So, as you see, it's a bit of a gray area. It's just now being defined. It's also being defined in a legal sense.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. ROPER: These are assets. If we define them as assets, then lawyers need to be involved, want to be involved. Not a bad aspect of all this is that there is an industry that's growing up. There are young companies that are thinking hard about all of this and hoping to earn a dollar or two and provide this service. Lawyers, of course, are going to be involved in it.

CONAN: Of course lawyers are going to be involved in it. But there is - there are in some cases, well, real assets. People spend real money to buy virtual stuff on sites like Second Life.

Mr. ROPER: Yeah. Yeah. So I think those assets do need to be protected. And there are, I mean, there are already three or four companies that I know about that will address those concerns for you for, you know, a reasonable fee.

CONAN: A small fee, yes.

Mr. ROPER: Right, right. But truly small, actually.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. ROPER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I shouldn't quote any figures and I don't know the exact - but there was talk at the Digital Death conference. You know, it seemed kind of reasonable, the amount of money you might have to pay for securing a bit of immortality.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. If you have questions about your digital afterlife, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Cathy(ph) is on the line calling from Boise.

CATHY (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

Mr. ROPER: Hello.

CATHY: How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CATHY: Good, good. I just went through all of this, what you're talking about. My brother passed away in March.

CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that.

CATHY: And - yeah. And I sort of took up the cause of, okay, what do we do with all of his accounts, Facebook, email, and then also dealing with his passwords. And he hadn't written any of them down, and his wife didn't know any of his passwords. So I'm trying to get those accounts, like his bank account and of all those things. So I've just had personal experience with it very recently. And I wanted to ask a couple of things. First of all, with the Facebook, have people left their friends or relatives, deceased, people's Facebooks open as a memorial and how long do you do that for?

CONAN: Hmm.

CATHY: That was one question I had. And then also, just to encourage others to write down your passwords and give them to a significant other or a trusted friend and...

CONAN: Or a safety deposit box or something like that.

CATHY: Something like that, yes, yes.

CONAN: All right. Robert Roper, any advice for Cathy?

Mr. ROPER: Well, Cathy, I'm not really an expert in Facebook. I'm sort of a reluctant, ignorant user of Facebook. But I do know that some people do use their Facebook. Facebook accounts have been used as memorial walls after the death of the user. And there are ways to configure that. I think, in a larger sense, well, as certain places run out of burial plots - for example, the city of Hong Kong is now encouraging people to have Facebook accounts or equivalent accounts and to create memorial walls because there's not room physically to memorialize people. So I think if Facebook is not already making that easy to do, I think they're thinking about it right this minute, and it probably will happen soon.

CONAN: Well, Cathy, we wish you the best of luck. I know this is difficult.

CATHY: Yeah. One more comment also. He worked for - in sales, and his contacts on his phone - great company, but they were completely erased shortly after his death, which we did not even think about. So it's just something else to think about.

CONAN: Wow.

CATHY: Because his employer paid for the phone, all of his contacts were erased.

Mr. ROPER: Cathy, can I ask you a question?

CATHY: Yeah.

Mr. ROPER: How did you go about finding your brother's passwords?

CATHY: How did I go - very strangely. His email provider had no problem changing the password for me without a death certificate or anything like that. So from the email account I was able to get on to his Facebook account through one of his emails.

CONAN: I see.

Mr. ROPER: I see.

CONAN: Because it had a link to his Facebook account.

CATHY: It did. It did.

Mr. ROPER: Uh-huh.

CATHY: Which is surprising that the - I'm not going to say the company - but that the email provided allowed me to change it so easily.

Mr. ROPER: Right. Well, it's kind of a blessing in this situation, but...

CATHY: Yes. Absolutely.

CONAN: You could see other ways it might be manipulated, yeah.

Mr. ROPER: Right.

CONAN: Cathy, thank you again.

CATHY: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. An email from Julia in Iowa. One of my friends who is mainly my online friend after he moved to Minnesota took his own life two years ago. His Facebook page remained as a macabre memorial. It is very disturbing when Facebook suggests that I reconnect with him. But I almost feel as though it would sully his memory if I unfriend his profile. So that's something else I hadn't thought of.

Mr. ROPER: Hmm. Right.

CONAN: Let see if we can go next to Jacob(ph). Jacob is with us from Baton Rouge.

JACOB (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jacob.

Mr. ROPER: Hello.

JACOB: I just have a couple odd questions about Internet subcultures and the concept of death. For example, I'm sure you may have heard of various instances where an individual died in real life and somebody will gather his accounts and they'll have like a funeral for him with all of his, you know, with all of his friends coming to this odd funeral and things of that nature. And some people are actual - you know, actually are interested in, you know, leaving their character in a very bizarre sense of inheritance to friends or family or somebody they might know online. And I was just wondering what you thought of those kinds of circumstances.

CONAN: You could certainly - I'm not familiar with the World of Warcraft. But you could certainly see somebody wanting the Viking virtual funeral.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROPER: Right. You know, this is a very good question. It goes sort of to the heart of this phenomenon, which is that I think traditionally - here we have all sorts of wonderful new technologies. But we are at some remove, human beings who do die and go away, and I think we've got to figure out how much we want to preserve, how much we want to lay upon those people who come after us. If we leave vast files of information that's deeply personal and that reveals us, what exactly are our descendants, our survivors, supposed to do with that? Traditionally, kind of a wise approach to death was to hope to be memorialized, hoped to be cared for and remembered. But a big part of dying is going away, no longer being an enormous presence, except perhaps in the hearts of those who loved you.

If there's a great data pile that I have to negotiate whenever I think of my grandmother, it's very different from having that memory in my heart that - you know, those images that are vivid in my brain. And I think we need to figure this out because there's something a little bit presumptuous, I think, in leaving too much to the future. The future doesn't belong to us. Once we die, we're exiting. We're off the stage.

CONAN: Jacob, thank you very much.

JACOB: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Roper, a regular contributor to Obit magazine, also a novelist and the author of "And Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War." He teaches film and media studies at Johns Hopkins University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This email from Dallas(ph) in Geyserville, California: This topic came up for me just last week. My mother passed away over a year ago. Last week, everyone listed in her AOL address book started to receive messages from her, each with no message and an attachment but clearly addressed from her account and sent from her account. I was able to contact AOL to close the account, as I had her passwords. However, for an additional four days the account remained open while it took AOL time to close the account, and someone continued to use it to send out messages addressed from my mother.

Go next to Leah(ph). Leah's with us from Ocean City in Maryland.

LEAH (Caller): Hi there. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to - one quick thought. Would it not be possible for the these sort of websites and publications, blogs, MySpace, et cetera, Facebook especially, to have something of an expiration date so that if you did not log on in a certain period of time or if you were inactive or someone contacted you, could they not send out emails to whatever address you had as your backup or post notifications on your account screen when you log in, et cetera, et cetera, and then after a certain period of time, if there's no legitimate response, couldn't these websites simply delete the personal...

CONAN: Or put it on suspension, at least.

LEAH: Exactly.

CONAN: Relatives can have someone declared dead if they've been missing for, I think, seven years, in most places. Robert Roper, could there be a virtual equivalent?

Mr. ROPER: Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. And I'm not sure that some social networking sites don't already have something of that order in place. It makes a lot of sense. I think, though, we're also talking about people wanting to preserve their...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROPER: ...let's say their Facebook presence after they're gone, after they're not going to be making any more posts. That's...

CONAN: There's sort of a macabre phrase in - by sports collectors: He's no longer signing. I guess the equivalent is: He's no longer posting.

Mr. ROPER: Yeah. Yeah.

LEAH: Even for a memorial I would think a certain amount of time is about enough, especially like the previous the previous caller mentioned how, you know, Facebook suggests you reconnect with people. And it can be a little bit unnerving.

CONAN: I'm sure so. That's not happened to me yet, but I'm sure will. Leah, thank you very much for the call.

LEAH: Thank you.

Mr. ROPER: Thanks.

CONAN: And I guess the best idea, if you want to make sure that the stuff you want preserved is preserved and the stuff you want deleted is deleted, is to make advanced directives known to people who have access to all this stuff.

Mr. ROPER: It makes a lot of sense. Sure. Or use one of these companies. I don't know if I should read their names.

CONAN: Well, I suppose if somebody goes to Obit magazine - I have to admit, I'd read a lot of obits for magazines, I've never heard of Obit magazine before.

Mr. ROPER: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah. Well, I think probably in my article, I do mention some of these useful young companies that are providing a good service.

CONAN: Okay. Well, we'll put up a link to your article on our Web page at npr.org, and just click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll send you a link to Peter to - excuse me, Robert Roper's piece that he wrote for Obit magazine that includes some of the companies that are providing these services, if you're interested. Well, Robert, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. ROPER: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Robert Roper joined us today from the studios at University of California at Berkeley. He teaches film and media studies at Johns Hopkins University. And again, we'll find that link to his article at Obit magazine at our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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