Thanks so much for all of the well-wishes and condolences on Monday’s post.
Heather’s mom died, and for a while we puzzled over how to do the same for someone who is plugged-in. There were a lot of questions along the way, and it was hard to know how to best handle things. It’s all taken care of now, but it did get me thinking about how it will become more and more common to need to take care of someone’s online affairs when they pass. How do you close out their email accounts, their forum accounts, Facebook, MySpace, IM, etc etc? In short, what do you do will all this stuff? In some cases you can just abandon it – there’s certainly no shortage of that sort of behavior from the net users who are still alive – but I have a sense that it might be unwise to leave accounts floating around out there for years when the owner is gone, particularly if those accounts might contain personal information.
The trouble is that there aren’t any customs or traditions for stuff like this yet. Everyone has a sense about how you take care of memberships, taxes, credit cards, and business relationships, but when it comes to your digital identity everyone is just winging it right now. Internet life has become really complicated in a short period of time, and the culture hasn’t quite caught up.
Below are some of my thoughts on handling someone’s online affairs. (And it should go without saying that all of this assumes you have the right to be doing so. We’re talking about spouses and parents here, or situations where the responsibility has fallen into your lap because you happen to be the family “tech person”. I’m not suggesting you hack into auntie Mabel’s accounts when she goes and start deleting stuff.)
Assuming you can get into their email account, I think it’s a good idea to do so, and I also think it’s a good idea to hold onto that email address for a couple of years. Email accounts are often the keys to everything else. If you have the email account, you can use password recovery to get to all the other accounts. Many email services will delete an account if you don’t log in for N months, so it’s probably a good idea to check it once in a while just to keep it open. Perhaps six months from now you’ll discover the deceased had a blog you never knew about, and the thing has become overrun with vile pornographic spam. If you give up the email you’ll have no way to take down the blog or clean up the spam.
Facebook / MySpace / LinkedIn
Mom’s Facebook page was a hub of activity, and it was important to be able to announce her death and tie up those loose ends. Facebook apparently has some sort of “memorial” mode, where a page can be locked and will only be visible to existing friends, but that’s useless. (Or so I’m told, I don’t really do Facebook myself.) We want the page to go on so that high school friends or long-lost relatives seeking her can actually find her, learn what happened to her, and find out how to get in touch with the rest of the family.
Facebook is becoming the “database of everybody”, and it seems to make sense that people should stay in that database even after they die. If I’m looking up a friend from 20 years ago, I’d like to find them even if they’re dead. (And I’d like to know that they’re dead.) That way we can tell the difference between “doesn’t use the internet” and “died three years ago in a freak knitting accident”.
I can’t think of any reason to maintain an IM account after the owner has passed on, but do you need to close it out? Do you just never log in again, or should you delete all the contacts and profile information?
Actually, leaving it alone might be best. I suppose it would freak people out to see that their deceased friend has just signed in.
I suppose in most cases it’s fine to handle forum accounts the same way you handle IM. Abandon, and perhaps wipe the profile. (Assuming you even know about them. Heck, I’ll bet there are a dozen forum accounts out there that I’ve forgotten over the years. I couldn’t even close all of my OWN forum accounts, much less someone else’s.) Forum accounts rarely have anything more personal than a name, and an overwhelming majority of those will be aliases.
I’ve often wondered what would happen to my blog here if I got hit by a bus or was assassinated by agents working deep cover for EA. I mean besides the fact that I wouldn’t update it anymore. What is the protocol for when a blogger dies suddenly? Do you log in and post a notice for their readers? Do you take it down? I Googled around for old articles talking about deceased bloggers, and sure enough when I searched for their blogs they were gone. Some of the people seemed semi-famous, enough so that you’d think someone would have taken up the job of caring for it. The most prominent case I found was Cathy Seipp, who seemed to be a widely-read political writer of some sort, and who died of cancer at 50. I searched for her blog, but the only thing I found was blank. She’s only been dead for two years and already her blog is gone.
If you do find yourself with a blog of a loved one and you choose to keep it running, you’ll probably want to announce the death and then close the comments on the entire site after the readers have said goodbye. Otherwise, it will eventually fill up with spam. This is bad netiquette, and the last thing you want is for the work of your loved one to be defaced by spambots.
There are a lot of abandoned blogs out there, and I’m sure some small number of them are the result of having the owner die without telling their family about the blog or how to get into it.
Blogs are only a few years old, but sooner or later people will likely come to some sort of agreement about what should happen to old blogs.
I wonder if anyone at Valve has given this issue much thought. I know Valve has a strict no-transfer policy, which means that your collection should supposedly die with you.
Given the monetary worth of an account with lots of games – possibly hundreds of dollars – it seems like someone should get it. But a Steam account is a mixture of social stuff (friend list and profile information) and game access, and you can’t merge accounts. I don’t know how you could handle this.
I doubt Steam will last a hundred years – the landscape of the gaming industry is is tumultuous and fortunes change rapidly – but it’s amusing to think about a Steam account 100 years from now, the owner hilariously claiming to be 132 years old just so they could have access to great-great grandad’s collection. (Insert obvious Episode 3 joke here.)
I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask these questions. Someday we’ll have customs for dealing with stuff like this so that we know what to do.
I’m going to go write down my passwords, just in case.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
Bethesda NEVER Understood Fallout
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Another PC Golden Age?
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