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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 4

How to Manage Your Digital Afterlife

Your online persona and possessions can help assuage grief over your passing
head code, code silhouette, head with computer circuits, computer circuits, computer code



ALEX WILLIAMSON

After their son's suicide, one Wisconsin couple was desperate for answers. They tried to log into his e-mail and Facebook accounts but failed. The grieving parents finally got a court order to access these online records, arguing that just as their son's death gave them ownership of his tangible assets, so it also gave them rights to his digital contributions.

In courtrooms around the country, the online legacies of the departed are becoming the subject of painful battles for mourning families. People have long made plans for delivery of their possessions after they die, including family heirlooms, photograph albums, old letters and other memorabilia. Many people design this disbursement to help those left behind deal with their demise. Our possessions are part of us and traditionally are the main tangible part that remains after our death.

In the modern world, however, another echo of us exists that will outlast our physical existence: our writings and records in the digital realm. Our digital “selves” are composites of mementos such as images on Shutterfly or Flickr, books on e-readers, and our musings and correspondence on e-mail, blogs and social-media accounts. This full array of data deposits, legal experts say, is your digital legacy.

The increasing importance of our online identities adds a new layer to grief and mourning. Growing evidence suggests a person's contributions to the cloud can be dear to mourners and, because they are easily accessible, potentially lasting and interactive, can help them cope with the loss. Yet many of us have given little thought to what will happen to our online accounts after we die. “People don't realize that they need to make plans for these assets,” says Georgetown University lawyer Naomi Cahn. “The first step is getting people to think about this.”

Sites of Solace

Many people want to maintain their online privacy. In addition, preserving the Facebook page of a dead person could be considered a touch macabre. Yet as with your old physical photos and letters, creations by you in the digital world can be a comfort to those you leave behind. For an article now in press, information scientist Jed Brubaker of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues interviewed 16 Facebook users about their experiences after the loss of a friend or family member. They found that all the respondents were emotionally attached to the digital trappings of the deceased. “People tend to go back to these pages on anniversaries, birthdays and holidays” as a way to keep a part of their loved one alive, says cyber anthropologist Michaelanne Dye of the University of Georgia.

Mourners may even set up new online venues such as memorial Web sites or Facebook pages. These sites also can serve as effective emotional outlets. In her doctoral dissertation at Antioch University, psychologist Jordan C. Fearon asked 68 founders of Facebook memorial groups about their experiences with grieving through social media. All but one of the founders said they would recommend creating a Facebook group to anyone who had recently experienced a loss. Like holding a wake or sitting shivah, a virtual memorial provides the bereaved with social support, a sense of connection with both the deceased and the living, and meaningful activity. “It was very beneficial to my grieving process to physically see via my computer that my friends were feeling the exact same emotion,” wrote one of the individuals Fearon surveyed. In addition, nearly 60 percent of the respondents said that online grieving was more helpful and valuable than traditional grief rituals. Memorial sites, after all, can be made accessible to a broad array of individuals and can last for as long as participants need support.

Taking Care of Business

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