Photo via Flickr.
Preparing for death was a much cleaner affair back in those disconnected days of the late 1980s, when a World Wide Web was just something bad that could happen in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. You wrote your will, said your goodbyes, slammed Tiffany’s "I Think We’re Alone Now" into the cassette player, shut your eyes and just died already. It was that simple—except for the printed obituary and the obligatory slurred toast in your honor at the next family gathering. You might have left a pile of unwashed clothes, a dank apartment, and two unread copies of Neuromancer behind, but that was about the extent of it. That could all be tossed. These days, things are much messier because the biggest mess you leave behind is no longer tangible: it’s your digital footprint.
Death and the internet have always had a loveless and legislative relationship, marked by court cases in which families have and haven’t managed to gain access to deceased loved ones’ online accounts. Email and social media accounts outliving their human counterparts is a very real issue, as they have the potential to become gold mines of identity theft. Yet, they have also become a key part of the modern grieving process, and it wasn’t until 2009 that Facebook made its first big move in dealing with this by introducing a method of memorializing accounts. Memorial pages try to tidy up and protect that puddle of life you left online, by preventing your digital self from continuing to do things like "make new friends" or telling everyone it’s your birthday.
Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Dropbox and most other big websites have all followed suit in the last two to three years, creating policies and tools to aid the families and friends of those who have passed away. But, as the legal company Saga warned customers via the Telegraph late last year, not enough people are aware that this is something you need to take seriously. Saga’s Head of Wills, Probate and Lifetime Planning told the newspaper, “accounts registered with everything from social media pages, email providers, online retailers and online banking contain sensitive information that should be removed. This is especially true where banking information is involved.”
Google was the first multinational internet corporation to actually try to tackle the wider problem of ghosts in the machine. Their "Inactive Account Manager," a typically prudish and death-denying Western name, is an ambiguous service that focuses on granting your Google account and all its contents to a named inheritor, but doesn’t really cater for the way in which most of our lives have supernova’d across at least 20 accounts in the last decade or so. It comes as no surprise that a more direct and focused attempt to service the digital afterlife should come from the death-accepting cultures of the Far East, where cremation simulators are regarded a little like theme park attractions.
Photo via Yahoo! Ending Japan.
Enter Yahoo! Japan’s realistically named "Yahoo! Ending" service—your one-stop shop for a clean shuffle off this mortal e-coil. It’s visually introduced with an animated video that shows a few unlucky customers receiving messages on their phone to the effect of: “YOU’VE GOT POSTHUMOUS FAREWELL MAIL!” And I do not exaggerate the strange morbidity of this cartoon scene, in which a family, sitting in their living room, check their beeping phones to see: “If you’re reading this now it means I’ve already left this world ... I promised that I would never die before you, my wife, so I’m sorry. I had a really happy life thanks to you.”
That is just the beginning of Yahoo! Ending. Before you die, the service works with local funeral companies to help you write your will, pick your burial spot and plan the funeral. If decisions aren’t your thing, then you have the option of choosing from the set menu, as the Washington Post describes: “A basic package offered through Yahoo! Japan costs about $4,500, including the funeral, embalming and cremation, plus a wake for 30 people. Feeding guests at the wake costs an extra $30 per person, and for an additional $1,500 you can get a monk to perform at the funeral.” You can then set instructions to delete internet histories, pass social media account details on (or close them) and cancel any direct debits made through your Yahoo! wallet.
Aside from their more peaceful approach to mortal salience, there are other reasons why it’s no surprise that this is being tested in Japan. Almost a quarter of Japan’s population is over 65, and the birth rate has halved in the last six decades. With Yahoo! charging 180 yen per month, it means Japan’s "death industry" is approaching a boom era. Here in the UK, average age and birth rates might be a little more positive, but it’s not like people aren’t dying. Untended and inaccessible social media accounts can plague bereaved families with haunting notifications about how you once liked a "Polar Bear Humps Seal" video or endorsed Dominos Pizza, with worst case scenarios leading to creepy, virtual resurrections. And the eventual automatic deletion of inaccessible accounts can lead to the loss of work, photos, blogs, writing, music and any other stuff you stored online.
So, what are our choices in the Anglosphere, and are we paying enough attention?
Our hesitance to draw up wills for ourselves is "indicative of the way that we do not want to think or talk about our own deaths or dying,” explains Selina Ellis Gray over email. Selina works at the University of Lancaster—specializing in digital remains, ghostly presences and "end of life" technologies. “Therefore, its not surprising that in a recent survey, only 20 percent of people had even considered their digital legacy.”
With Google’s offering being quite restricted, and Yahoo!’s exclusively available in Japan, you need to move away from the big corps to find the perfect solution. But in doing so, you enter a realm of independent start-ups who are looking to service, and even gimmick, your digital legacy in some pretty peculiar ways.
For instance, DeadSoci.al looks to distribute your social media farewells—allowing you to create text, video and image rich content to be posted across Facebook and Twitter. These guys are proactive lobbyists in the death stakes, running very melancholic awareness workshops with snappy sadcore titles like "You Only Die Once," and hosting bizarre parties with celebrity DJs. The question is: how much do you really give a shit about maintaining a social presence once you’re dead?
Deathswitch.com is a much more robust service, with a website that looks like a real life Ballardian SkyNet. It doesn’t tidy up behind you, but it does offer to hold onto a spare pair of keys. The service routinely prompts you to reply over periods of weeks or months, and if it doesn’t get a response, it makes the obvious assumption that you’ve kicked the bucket, and sends all your stored data—like how to memorialize or shut your social media accounts – to chosen recipients in a nice, tidy bundle. It seems like one of the most efficient packages out there for UK customers; just don’t forget to respond to that prompt or you could have a scene on your hands.
Then there's the fame-hungry IfIDie1st.com, which is probably the social experiment byproduct of a crappy dissertation somewhere, but has nevertheless managed to clock up almost 300,000 sets of "messages." The idea is simple, but the appeal is not: send your last words to the website, and if you're the first person to do so to die, you get your message posted via a Mashable.com news story for all the "world" to see (Mashable’s traffic for July was 2.4 million). Based on the data they have collected, there is even a live calculator, estimating when the first person who's submitted their farewell missive should die. (Two and a half months, apparently, so there is still time to enter.)
If I Die 1st on YouTube
But these services clearly lack the pragmatism of Yahoo! Ending. There’s also no way of knowing whether these independent websites will bite the dust before you do. As Selina Ellis Gray emphasizes: “A big issue we face for our digital legacies is digital loss: the decay and deletion of what constitutes our footprints. In the course of my research, I watch sites go dark or decay every day. Memorials, tributes and social networking profiles are lost.” The internet is dramatically beginning to redefine what it is to die in a most clinical and unflinching way, and we need to be on the ball to leave a digital legacy plan behind. If you don’t, you might find yourself criminally repossessed, senselessly regurgitated or worse, perhaps, entirely forgotten.
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