Back in November John Gregory wrote about Dealing with Digital Assets After Death and a New York Times article quoting Montreal marketing consultant Adele McAlear. Adele happens to be a friend, so I took the opportunity to speak with her in detail about the topic on behalf of Slaw readers. Our full interview (held in December) is below. Since that time, she has launched her new website DeathandDigitalLegacy.com to better track this wide-ranging subject. Adele will also be speaking on “Death and Digital Legacy in Social Media” at the upcoming PodCamp Toronto 2010 (of which I am an organizer) being held February 20th & 21st at Ryerson University.
Here is our discussion about death, digital legacy and digital executors. This was a telephone conversation, recorded and transcribed:
Connie Crosby: Congrats on your New York Times article.
Adele McAlear: Thank you very much, that was great.
C: Can you give an idea for the Slaw audience what you do?
A: I’m a marketing consultant, I have 20 years of marketing experience and I specialize in social media and integration through marketing channels. So integrating social media into marketing channels.
C: And you are based in Montreal?
A: I am based in Montreal, yes.
C: To discuss what you talked about in the NYT article on the digital afterlife and virtual legacies: what is a virtual legacy?
A: A virtual legacy is a digital legacy and it’s whatever you leave behind on the internet or in digital files, so whether that’s what you stored on your computer or what you have on the internet. We are all so connected these days, and more and more people are coming on board with having social media and different types of online media as part of their day-to-day existence. Whether you’ve got a Flickr account and you store your photos there, or whether you’ve uploaded video to YouTube, or if you are on Facebook and you have photos there or just an account on Facebook that you interact with people on, then that is all part of your digital legacy. That is all that you are creating online.
C: Why is it important to think about this?
A: It’s important because first off it’s a new area. In the last five years the way social media has taken off. The way it is becoming mainstream and part of people’s daily lives, people are living more and more of their lives online and each time you are online you are creating something. How many people actually know which accounts you have or where you are online? While you are online you are developing communities. You might be on Twitter and have a community of friends you speak with there, you might have a different community of people you speak with on Facebook, you might be part of a forum. Maybe you are a working mom and you’re on a working moms’ forum, or a librarian and you are on a librarian forum. There are all sorts of places where you communicate with people online and develop relationships and friendships. If the inevitable happens, who will let your friends know that you’ve passed on? If something surprising happens, god forbid you are struck by a truck, how would your online friends find out and what would happen to all of the digital media that you’ve got online?
Many people think that Twitter and things of the like are very disposable and to certain individuals they are and to certain individuals they want everything archived like a museum piece. So it’s a question of thinking about what of yourself that you’ve created online do you want to stay online? Do you have a blog? Does your blog represent a large portion of your research? Do you want it available to people for posterity for them to be able to reference your blog? Maybe it’s a personal blog and you’ve got family anecdotes there and you want it available to your family. These are all things that can come up, issues that can come up, when you start thinking about if you were to pass on suddenly. Even if you were to have an illness, and be incapacitated in some way, unless there are people in your life who understand what you have online and understand how to access that information, you run the risk of losing it all. That’s why it’s important.
C: Facebook has been trying to deal with this in various ways haven’t they?
A: Facebook is one of the few online services that actually has somewhat of a policy. Most online services are so geared towards growth and acquiring new membership that they really haven’t thought about termination of an account or closing out of an account. And termination doesn’t necessarily have to be as a result of death or being incapacitated in some way, it could be that you just no longer want to be on that system anymore and you want to close it down. There are many online services that have no mechanism in place to close down an account. What Facebook have done, and they have had this in place for some time, although they only blogged about it in the summer so it came off as being some sort of new feature, but in fact they have had it for years, which is to memorialize an account. You can report that someone has passed away. I am still unclear on their verification methods, how they actually verify that this is a real person that has passed away and not someone playing a hoax.
When you’ve passed away or they are notified of an account of someone who has passed away, they can memorialize it, meaning the account will no longer accept friend invitations. It will keep the wall open to existing family and friends and it will take away some of the personal information that should not be there. I believe they take away the person’s birth date. Where this has hit some problems with Facebook is that they have come out with another new service lately that is “Hey, get in touch with people that you haven’t spoken with in a while”. What’s been happening is that they will pull up profiles of people that might have passed on, and so you log into Facebook and–unsuspecting–you see one of your dead friends and a note from Facebook saying “Hey, reach out and talk to them, you haven’t talked to them in a while.” It’s one of those kinks in the system that they haven’t worked out yet.
Actually I’ve been speaking with somebody at Facebook to find out the contact of the person who is in charge of the memorialization of accounts and believe it or not, my contact there who is quite well placed is not able to find that information out. They only have 500 employees! So, I’m still working out who is in charge of the memorialization process to be able to ask them more questions about how they are going to deal with this. But Facebook is one of the few online services that has it.
Another one is Twitter, they don’t have a policy, an official policy. Well, actually they do but they are not implementing it. Their official policy is that if an account is dormant for six months they will delete it and free up the name. But in fact they are not doing that, because the first person I ever knew from purely an online relationship who died, died two years ago in December 07 and his account on Twitter is still very much alive. There is no mechanism in place to memorialize an account on Twitter.
Likewise, for Flickr, there are date restrictions there as well, if you have a Flickr account and there is no activity for 90 days then the account is shut down and all the photos are lost. But again, I’ve been in situations where I know of free accounts on Flickr that are older than 90 days and are still available. So there seems to be a certain randomness in how these online services are dealing with this. Paid accounts are another whole thing. If you have a blog or if you have a paid Flickr account, and you are paying for hosting on your blog, if you don’t make arrangements in advance of your passing or incapacitation, to have that taken care of, either financially if you want it there or to have the content downloaded and preserved then it will just be lost.
If the bills aren’t paid, many of these services are set up so that it will auto-charge on a credit card. Well, one of the first things people do when dealing with the passing of a loved one is they cancel the credit cards. So the next time a domain comes up for renewal or hosting goes to take a payment, or Flickr goes to renew the pro account, they won’t be able to because the credit card will have been cancelled.
C: And a lot of those notices come through email.
A: Exactly. If there is one key thing that you need to deal with the passing of a loved one, it’s to know what their email addresses are and the passwords to those addresses. Even if you don’t know their Facebook login or their Twitter login and password, if you know the email address where they get the notifications, then you’ll know that that’s the email address for logging in. Even if you don’t have the password [for the various websites], that’s fine because you can login using the email and say you’ve lost the password and receive the password reset in the email and be able to gain access to it. But if you don’t have the password to the email account you’ll never be able to retrieve the password resets.
C: That’s a good point.
A: That’s the most important thing that people can do, is make sure that their loved ones have access to their email accounts.
C: Now, in the New York Times article you talked about appointing a digital executor. What is that exactly?
A: A digital executor is somebody who takes care of all of your digital affairs when you are incapacitated or pass away. It is somebody that you know who hopefully is digitally savvy, who understands the web and how it works and that you can entrust to carry out your final wishes. Do you want all your Flickr photos archived, downloaded and saved if they don’t exist elsewhere? What do you want done with your Twitter account? What do you want done with your Facebook account? What do you want done with your blog? Even digital files you have saved on your computer, what do you want done with them? And so the digital executor is somebody who can notify your online friends if you’ve passed away, who can deal with any sort of online communications that perhaps your family isn’t equipped to deal with at the time of grieving. Quite often it’s a good idea to appoint a friend but not somebody who is going to be so totally devastated by your passing that they won’t be able to cope with the realities of the digital world, which is very immediate. People want immediate responses in the digital world and if you are a grieving family member you may not be able to cope with that.
C: You also suggested that you might also, if you don’t have a trusted friend, approach a lawyer or notary.
A: It could be done. It’s a very new aspect of wills and digital wills. You could in fact approach a lawyer or notary to see if this could be something that you could arrange with them in advance. To my knowledge there are no digital executors for hire, if you will. There are services like Legacy Locker and there are a few more of them, where you can upload your passwords and your account information and they will ping you with an email every month to see if you are still alive and if they fail to get a response then they will take it to the next step, which is going to your next of kin and seeing if you’ve passed away. If they confirm that you’ve passed away then they will release your password information to whomever you have designated in advance. Now, that’s all very fine and well, but there are other ways to do that which might be a little bit more efficient.
C: I guess if those services go out of business then it doesn’t work.
A: Exactly. That is a problem. There are ways that you can handle passing on your information in advance. For instance, you create a Gmail account that is specific to your digital will, and that is meant for your digital executor. That way the only email and password you need to give to your digital executor is the password to that particular Gmail account. Then as you go about your day to day life, as you change passwords, as you sign up to things, as you figure out what it is that you want done with your content, you simply send an email to that Gmail account with the details so it can be an ongoing dynamic thing. Even if you change your password somewhere you can just simply fire off an email to that Gmail account saying changed password on blah-blah-blah. That way you don’t have to worry about keeping things in a safety deposit box, updating your will every time you change your password. You can simply put the Gmail account and the password to that account in your will, and as long as you don’t change those two things, then everything else that’s dynamic will be funnelled into that Gmail account. You’ve got one stop to find out all of the pertinent information.
C: Many of Slaw’s readers are lawyers. Lawyers who are working in the wills and estates area may not have thought about all of this. Do you think they should be mentioning it to their clients as a routine thing?
A: I think they should mention it to their clients, but only if they themselves are somewhat educated on what could be involved. Because their clients will then seek education and information from the lawyer. So lawyers need to educate themselves as to the different components that might be present in somebody’s digital life and possibly different ways they could handle it, or possibly they need to find people who they can outsource the handling of these accounts to. I would say the most important thing for lawyers to deal with, is first off the digital law regarding access to accounts and copyright of information. Who actually owns the accounts is all very grey right now.
The digital culture is so new that the law hasn’t really caught up with it. It’s difficult to know from a legal perspective where the lines are drawn. At least that’s my understanding of it. I’m not a lawyer and I would love to talk to a lawyer about this! I would love to have that perspective. Perhaps somebody from Slaw will step forward when they see this. It’s my understanding that this is such a new area that there are really not a lot of people talking about it generally, but lawyers especially are not. It should be something that lawyers discuss when they are sitting down with a client about their will. I think that would be a great service.
It’s really changing the funeral industry. I know there is a funeral director in BC who loves technology and he loves marketing and he’s set about trying to educate other funeral directors about digital services they can offer like digital guest books and live streaming of funeral services. I know that technology is really going to be changing the basics of funeral services. I’ve also heard horror stories about online obituaries and being taken to the cleaners and being charged $300 for an online obituary – they want more money to add a photo to it and they only allow 30 days for it to be live. So the guest book that was attached to that and all the comments that went to it disappeared without really notification that maybe you should be downloading this or saving it. And that was through a funeral home dealing with a major media outlet. To charge somebody who is grieving $300 to put an online obituary that is only good for 30 days seems criminal to me. But that’s quite normal unfortunately. From a legal perspective, I think there is a lot of grey zone there and I think that the services to support being a digital executor have yet to be really developed, despite the fact that there are a few early entries into the field like Legacy Locker. I think that there is a lot of room in the field for development.
C: Where do you think the Slaw audience could go to learn more about it, but it sounds like there may not be a lot out there.
A: I own the domain deathanddigitallegacy.com. I’m trying to get a site up that will aggregate information from around the web on this issue, as well being a place where I can post about these kinds of things without posting it on my marketing blog, because it’s kind of two different subjects. Two different audiences. But there isn’t really a lot out there – there are only a few people talking about this right now, and to my knowledge I’m the only one in Canada that is talking about this.
C: You’re the first one I’ve really heard. I’ve heard it mentioned in passing when people have thought about it, but you’ve obviously given this a lot of thought and researched it.
A: I’ve also been interviewing people and getting anecdotal stories for six months. Every time I interview somebody and get their anecdotal stories about what they have had to deal with, it raises more questions and more red flags about the holes that are out there in the system. There is a Buddhist monk who lives in Holland and he’s got terminal cancer. He’s a Dutch guy who’s Buddhist with terminal cancer, and he’s also an artist and his thing is about virtual immortality. He’s exploring the rather vague concepts of digital immortality and how technology is coming together with automated responses and systems that you can set up to auto-respond to things so that we can in theory leave our consciousness online and continue these online relationships with people without physically having to be here. He’s done some short films and things about it and it’s pretty trippy stuff.
I’ve talked to a developer in the UK who’s looking at this from the development perspective in terms of what online services need to do and what is the actual business cost of maintaining servers full of dormant accounts. We’re early adopters, we go, we set up a profile with everything, leave a few things and then maybe never go back. I can’t remember the last time I was on Plurk. Think about if online services don’t actually have policies about closing down accounts in place, then they are maintaining these dormant accounts and dormant accounts require server space. It’s okay if you are only talking about a few thousand, but if you are talking about millions of dormant accounts, what is the actual dollar value cost to businesses to maintain that? That is one aspect of it, not to mention the fact that there are so few easy mechanisms to close out accounts.
This developer that I’ve been speaking with says he has a Yahoo account that he’s had for 10 years. He has a very plain name, so if he gave up my yahoo account, if he was able to give it up, that would be great. But he’s not able to. There is no mechanism in place to close out a Yahoo account. So let’s say Yahoo arbitrarily will assign the name to somebody else. In the meantime he’s signed up to a variety of email accounts and that dormant account is collecting email spam-bacony stuff, notifications. They close it down because they see he hasn’t logged into it in 10 years. So they’ve maintained the server space acquiring all of this new spam-bacony notifications and spent the money on housing that and then when they finally release the name and somebody else signs up with this name, is that person going to start receiving his old email, because the name is still on the lists? And so, there is a privacy issue that comes into it as well. Because developers just haven’t worked this out.
It’s all so new nobody has really worked it out yet. I find the whole topic very fascinating. There are a lot of different angles to help people mourn online is changing as well. The business of mourning even. It’s really being altered with technology.
C: Thank you for sharing all of this, Adele.
A: Thank you for wanting to speak with me.
C: I look forward to seeing your research and where you go with this.
A: There will be more coming in the New Year that’s for sure. There are plans afoot!
Thanks to Adele McAlear for the interview. If you are a Canadian wills and estates lawyer interested in this subject, Adele encourages you to get in touch with her. You can contact her via her website at www.adelemcalear.com.
This interview was recorded over Skype by Connie and transcribed by virtual legal assistant Laurie Mapp of Halo Secretarial Services. It was then lightly edited by Connie for readability.