A New Email App Lets You Mess with Loved Ones from Beyond the Grave

"HI MOM! It's me, your dead son."

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Jul 6 2016, 2:45pm

The Phoenix homepage

Trigger warning: You're going to have to think about death for around the next five minutes. In fact, let's get the death out of the way now. I'm going to ask you to think of a relative or friend who's died recently. Got one? OK now I want you to consider how you'd feel if, about eleven months after their death, they emailed you to say hello from the other side.

You'd probably think it's some kind of sick joke, or perhaps a thoughtless marketing ploy like when Parklife festival made people think their late mothers were texting them about popping over for breakfast.

Except this email, the one you're going to receive from your recently deceased loved one, will probably explain at the start that it knows you think it's a joke. "This is not a joke," it will say. Rather, it's an email they wrote before they died, and it's been sent by Phoenix, a new startup that views life's final curtain as something more like a set of Venetian blinds through which you can, if you wish, poke your funny little face.

"On the line" from Mexico is 21-year-old coder and Phoenix founder Enrique Benitez, who says the idea came to him one day after he found himself considering his own demise. "I thought—it'd be very sad to die right now without saying goodbye to the people I love," he recalls. "When I arrived home, I started coding Phoenix."

The aim, Benitez reckons, is "to empower communication after death" but to be fair Phoenix is not exactly what you might call a brand new idea: Emailfromdeath.com and ifidie.org operate on similar lines, while heavenote.com and deadmansswitch.com operate on almost identical lines. The web is littered with former services like mywebwill.com, deathswitch.com, and assetlock.com, which were all aimed at passing on digital data when you snuff it, and in the early 2000s, artist and former KLF member Bill Drummond set up mydeath.net (tagline: "PREPARE TO DIE"), inviting punters to outline their ideal sendoffs in quite considerable detail. You could fill in details such as "disposal," "music," "epitaph," and "guests."

But most of those services feel like nerdy school projects from the Geocities era, whereas there's something rather quaint about Phoenix, not least Benitez's cheery instructional video (his chosen subject line: "Hey Mom it's me Enrique!").

How does it work? Well, you link Phoenix to your Gmail account (and I think I'm safe in saying here that this already sounds like a recipe for total bloody disaster), then write and save your emails in Phoenix's interface. The knowing-you're-dead part doesn't hinge, as you might hope, on detecting the pulse of people wearing Apple Watches (possibly because anyone with an Apple Watch is unlikely to actually have any friends or loved ones) and instead relies on the user checking in to Phoenix once a year. If you don't check in, Phoenix assumes you're dead and tells Gmail to fire off the spookmissives.

A sample email from Phoenix

Phoenix's 12-month window means that if you fall in a massive hole the day after your last check-in, your beyond-the-grave update could take 364 days to hit home.

Think about that. You die in a strange accident. Everyone is sad. It's pretty bad, actually—there's a lot of "people sitting in darkened rooms" action. But months pass and gradually, people start to put their lives back together; they stop blaming one another, they stop blaming themselves. Even the guy driving the milk float learns to live with what he did. LIVES ARE BACK ON TRACK. And just as everything's back to as close to normal as it can ever be, you appear in their inboxes: "HIYYAAAAAAAA!!!"

"I'm kind of creating virtual ghosts," Benitez admits when I ask him if it's all a bit spooky. "I haven't seen a ghost myself, but I do believe in ghosts as well as the afterlife. I believe that every human has a soul, and that's what makes each one of us unique."

Benitez's vision for the service is built on the notion that users will be sending heartfelt messages of love and friendship. In theory, it should be just like that Hillary Swank letters-from-beyond-the-grave Hollywood blubfest P. S. I Love You—a film whose shoe-designing subplot was, like the rest of the whole sorry debacle, cobblers.

But most of us are terrible people. It's more fun, surely, to synchronize Phoenix with your own personal shitlist and set it to fire off outrageous emails settling scores from beyond the grave. The driving instructor whose encouragement each time you stalled amounted to no more than a melodramatic sigh? He's getting an email. Simon Bunker from high school who put your head in the toilet after you said Rosie Norton had wobbly hair? There are a few choice words on their way to him. The downstairs neighbor from a decade ago who left the front door open resulting in your apartment being burgled while his own abode remained intrusion-free? Two emails for that fucker.

I suggest to Benitez that this could be a good pivot for the business if Phoenix doesn't rise as hoped. "That's a point several people have suggested!" he replies. "Phoenix can be used for many things—letters for friends, family, enemies... even suicide letters."

That gives the service an even more macabre character, although Benitez adds that he's considered building in "sentiment analysis" in an attempt to prevent the service being used for suicide notes. Even with safeguards, though, there's a sense services like these could mean we may feel less inclined to rebuild bridges with friends and family, knowing that you'll be able to do it when you're six feet under. Phoenix, and services like it, also come with an extra built-in sadness because of their likely users: As the only people who'd consider this a remotely good idea are millennials, the mail this service is likely to be sending in the short to medium term would be from people who simply shouldn't have died so young.

And then, of course, there's the possibility that you haven't died at all. Never mind the fact that all these services are just a hacked database away from all hell breaking loose—most of us live our lives in a perpetual state of chaos. We miss tax deadlines even when they're plastered on billboards, we forget to pay credit card bills even though we know they need paying. How about that Mother's Day card that's still at the bottom of your bag? It's only a matter of time before one of us signs up to Phoenix, ignores its check-in reminder emails, and accidentally informs our entire address book that we're dead.

"It's scary!" is Benitez's not-exactly-reassuring response. "The way I kind of solve that scary part—when emails would accidentally get sent—is to give people one more month after their one year check-in time frame, as well as to remind them to check-in via email and SMS. I hope to find a better method someday."

Looking to the future, Benitez's hoping to boost sign-ups by linking accounts with Twitter and Facebook (again, no possible problems there,) and he's changing the pricing structure, allowing premium users to upload video messages. This would certainly allow for some top quality LOLs if you were to cut two eyeholes in a sheet and deliver your messages in full-on ghost mode.

Whether Benitez will concentrate on Phoenix long-term remains to be seen—he's set himself the challenge of launching 17 digital products by the end of the year, Phoenix being only the first. "I have many ideas," Benitez says, "but none of them are real. I challenged myself to make them happen."

The next two projects are based on coding, he says. Which might not be as daring as Phoenix, but they have less chance of making your mom cry.

For more information on Phoenix check out their website.

Follow Peter Robinson on Twitter.

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